Sunrise tries rare civil RICO action

WARREN – A civil claim made under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, like the one made against people associated with the former Sunset Lounge in Warren in a recent lawsuit, is unusual, said a legal expert.

J. Dean Carro, a University of Akron law professor, said it’s ”rare” to see a civil RICO claim brought by plaintiffs, and the reason is because it’s a ”broad- based attack against a defendant,” meaning ”there are a lot of elements to prove.”

”It’s a complicated civil action that suggests to me, without reading the complaint, there was a wide-ranging pattern of activity that was designed to drive one company out of business,” Carro said.

The complaint filed in March by attorney Richard Goodman for the corporation that runs the Sunrise Inn alleges, in part, that a small group of people associated with the now-closed Sunset Lounge engaged in a pattern of activity to wreck the restaurant and cost it large sums of money.

The lawsuit contains 10 other allegations, including a claim that the same group of people broke Ohio’s Corrupt Practices Act, which is the state’s version of the federal RICO statute.

Another of the allegations in the lawsuit that asks for as much as $3.7 million in damages is Sunset Lounge was a nuisance. According to the lawsuit, police were called there at least 28 times from May 2012 when the bar opened to January, when it closed.

Not mentioned specifically in the lawsuit among the police calls was the shooting death of a 25-year-old Warren man at the bar on Jan. 1.

The lawsuit goes on to say the use of the name ”Sunset” was a ”deliberate attempt” to cause confusion as to any connection to the Sunrise Inn.

Although the lawsuit was filed March 26, no hearing date has been set. Common Pleas Court Judge W. Wyatt McKay has been assigned the case.

The origin of the RICO Act can be traced back to organized crime – the Mafia, said Jonathan Witmer-Rich, assistant professor at the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law at Cleveland State University.

”They kind of looked at what the Mafia did and tried to construct a statute that tried to cover that,” Witmer-Rich said.

It’s been successfully used to take down organized crime, but because it was written broadly to include a wide range of illegal activity, prosecutors and litigants are applying RICO in more situations, Witmer-Rich said.

RICO has been used to dismantle the mob in Mahoning County and more recently, a large, violent street gang in Youngstown.

The attraction in civil cases, Witmer-Rich said, is that it allows for triple damages. Law also allows recovery of costs related to the lawsuit, including reasonable attorney fees.

The civil charge, although still rare, is being seen more often, Carro said. It’s not yet, though, he said, as common as the criminal RICO charge.