Indian motel owners claim harassment by town officials violated civil rights

By Jim Boyle | Jul 7, 2014

A pair of motel owners say they have suffered years of harassment and discriminatory

treatment by official representatives of the Paradise, Pa., government in Lancaster County.

Thiruvalam Indira and Mookan Periyasamy say they have been denied their fourth and fourteenth amendment rights to privacy and due process because of discriminatory behavior by township supervisors, administration and committee members. They claim the township's actions prevented them from running the Paradise Motor Lodge effectively and successfully and interfered with attempts to sell and auction off the property.

According to the claim, the animosity began approximately one year after Indira and Periyasamy purchased the Paradise Motel in May 2003. In 2004, Paradise Zoning Officer Dominick Lopez approached Indira and informed her that she would hire an Amish worker to repair a broken mower tractor and pay more money than what it would normally cost. The suit states that Lopez told Indira that he would make her life miserable if she refused and that she was an "Indian woman who asked to buy property here. We, the township, dictate who can do what here. You understand?"

In June 2005, the plaintiffs made plans to add a $160,000 extension to the motel. While reviewing the plans, Lopez and township supervisor Dennis Groff told Indira that the occupancy permits would not be approved unless the motel hooked up to Paradise's sewage system. According to the complaint, another township official, Dale High, allegedly threatened Indira by saying, "If you do not play ball with us, we will drive you out. Do you see other colored people owning property of this size? We will shut you down."

Over the next four years, the plaintiffs claim they received several notices that they were in violation of the Pennsylvania Sewer Facilities Act and the International Property Maintenance Code because of their sewage system. Indira and Periyasamy say those charges are untrue and used as a method to compel them to hook up to the township sewage system.

Multiple calls and letters have been written to the township officials, asking why they have an approved building permit from 2004, but no occupancy permits filed under that document have been approved, costing the couple income. No responses have been given, and in-person requests to review the motel's public files have been denied, treatment that has not been given to Caucasian business-owners or residents, the suit says.

During one encounter in July 2011, Lopez allegedly asked Indira why Indian women are so difficult and demanded to know if she was a legal U.S. citizen. Indira responded that she was an American citizen and asked to see the Certificate of Occupancy for Paradise Motor Lodge, which Lopez allegedly refused.

In October 2011, a nuisance complaint was filed against the Paradise Motor Lodge, stating that the property would be shut down unless the grass was mowed and the trash collected, requirements that the plaintiffs say were already met.

Indira confronted Lopez about the complaint and informed him that it appeared that there was selective enforcement of township codes, presumably based on her and her partner's race. A neighboring homeowner, for example, ran loud machines late at night and early in the morning, which disrupted her business, the complaint says. Lopez directed Indira to leave her neighbor alone.

The claim says that the motel was listed for sale in 2010, but township officials warned real estate agents that the property was going to be shut down. An attempt to auction the property in August 2012 was also thwarted when Lopez and Groff informed prospective buyers that the motel needed a new storm plan and connection to the public sewage system, according to court documents.

On April 22, 2014, Indira and Periyasamy received a notice for property condemnation, a move the plaintiffs say was justified by inspection reports from coding companies staffed by people with close ties with the government officials. Two days later, the condemnation letter was removed by Lopez, who allegedly told the plaintiffs that he would "be back soon to shut down the motel."

The plaintiffs are represented by Stephen O'Hanlon of the O'Hanlon Law Firm in Philadelphia.

The federal case ID number is 5:14-cv-04050-JS.

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