The city of Santa Monica has filed a lawsuit against the College Cafe on Pico Boulevard for allegedly refusing to serve a group of recovering mentally ill patients who live at a community care facility one block away from the restaurant.
The suit, filed last week in Santa Monica Superior Court, seeks $37,500 in civil penalties and an injunction to prevent the restaurant from discriminating against residents of The Manor at 1905 Pico Blvd.
The cafe, which was opened six weeks ago by Nasser Sameha, David Shamsa and Nader Ghiam, is charged with discriminating against the residents "on the basis of perceived physical or mental disability."
According to city officials and Ron Bara, a local outreach coordinator who supervised the patients, Bara and a group of 12 residents of The Manor went to the restaurant on July 26 and ordered a pizza dinner.
Bara said that the manager of the restaurant, Nader Ghiam, refused to serve the residents.
"(The manager) said he doesn't serve people who live in The Manor," Bara said. "He said he also managed a Burger King which is right next door to The Manor and he had some problems with a resident of The Manor and decided not to serve them at all. . . . He said he has the right to refuse service to anyone."
Bara, who said he plans to file a separate lawsuit against the cafe, said that the manager initially said that he would serve the pizzas on a "takeout basis." But when the food came, the manager said that in the future he would not even serve them on a takeout basis, Bara said.
"We got up and left at that point," Bara said.
Ghiam, reached by telephone, denied the charges. "What they are saying, that I refused to serve them, is not true," Ghiam said.
David Shamsa, another owner, said the restaurant had not done anything wrong. "This is a decent place, this is not a bar here," Shamsa said. "They (Manor residents) come every day here. We never had problems with them. Sometimes they come without shoes or shirts. Sometimes we tell them to go home, clean themselves and come back. . . . This is not right really. If this is a free country, they shouldn't hurt us. We just tell them to be a little decent and come here."
City Atty. Robert M. Myers said that the purpose of the lawsuit is "to send a strong signal to the owners of the College Cafe that discrimination against individuals because of their physical or mental status is clearly proscribed by the law."
The suit contends that The Manor residents were not unruly. "At all times relevant to this action, the residents of The Manor, who were subject to defendants' discriminatory actions, have conducted themselves in a manner consistent with that expected of the general public while patrons of defendants' business," the suit states.
The residents of The Manor had formed a club under the guidance of Project Return, a day center located on 2nd Street in Santa Monica, according to Bara. He said the residents had raised $70 and had decided to treat themselves to dinner.
Project Return, which began operations last November, serves 180 recovering mentally ill patients a month, Bara said. The day center offers classes on topics such as problem solving, nutrition, grooming and assertiveness training.
Diane Windsor, one of the residents of The Manor, described the incident at the College Cafe: "They didn't want to serve the group, including me. I only asked for a soda water, a Perrier, and they completely ignored me. None of us were served. I felt very irritable about that. . . . If they don't change their attitude, I will never show my face in there again."
Bara said that he hopes to make the public aware of the problems of the recovering mentally ill. "It's the stigma we're concerned about," he said. "These people are trying to get back on their feet and get back into the society and get jobs and they can't even go to (this) restaurant and be served."