Business owners sue Hattiesburg, mayor over COVID-19 order

Gavel on sounding block
Gavel on sounding block(Source: Gray News)
Updated: May. 22, 2020 at 6:08 PM CDT
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HATTIESBURG, Miss. (WDAM) - The owners of a Hub City business sued the City of Hattiesburg and Mayor Toby Barker, claiming the city violated their constitutional rights after the business was closed under state and local executive orders.

Charles Bradford Ramey and Herbert Taylor Ramey, owners of Updown Trampoline Park, filed the suit in federal court Friday.

Gov. Tate Reeves ordered all non-essential businesses closed with his shelter-in-place order on April 1. Indoor and outdoor recreations facilities, gyms and fitness centers were not considered essential under Reeves’ previous Executive Order No. 1463.

The Rameys said they were issued citations by the city for defying executive orders and filed the lawsuit a week later. They claim the city violated their constitutional rights by passing ordinances, which also incorporates the state executive orders, that allow the city to enforce the closure of the business due to COVID-19.

The suit claims this is a violation of the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and the Mississippi Constitution, which prohibit the taking of private property for public use without just compensation. The lawsuit argues ordinances imposing fines and possible imprisonment for violating the closure order are effectively taking the business without compensation due to losses in income.

According to the suit, the business has been issued citations from the City of Hattiesburg and the Hattiesburg Police Department for violations of these orders. Four citations are included in the suit as exhibits.

The Rameys argue there is no imminent danger to necessitate the closure of Updown Trampoline Park, citing an April 27 Facebook post from Reeves saying in part that he believes “there is no such thing as a non-essential business.”

The suit also includes a sworn affidavit from Dr. John C. Nelson, former ER Medical Director for Forrest General Hospital, who said that it is his opinion that businesses like Updown Trampoline Park provide health benefits that outweigh the risks of COVID-19 and can abide by guidelines limiting the spread of the coronavirus.

“In my opinion, there is no actual necessity for closing businesses like UpDown Trampoline Park in Forrest County,” his affidavit concludes.

In the suit, the Rameys claim the city’s actions are also a violation of the Fourth Amendment through unreasonable seizure and their Fourteenth Amendment rights by denying them equal protection of the laws and due process.

The suit argues the city orders violate equal protection of the law because the city’s ordinances, resolutions and executive orders do not include a clear definition of which businesses are essential. It claims the city arbitrarily decides which businesses can operate and imposes criminal penalties on those that are deemed non-essential.

The Rameys seek preliminary injunctive relief and requested the Court find Updown Trampoline Park to fall within the definition of a gym, allowing it to remain open under current executive orders, as well as damages incurred due to the closures.

Although the suit claims Reeves’ orders also damaged the business, it notes that the governor and the state of Mississippi are not listed as defendants in the suit because they are immune from suit for damages in federal court under the Eleventh Amendment.

The city declined to comment on the lawsuit, but lawyers representing the Rameys sent statements to WDAM. The Rameys said they only opened the exercise portion of their business and followed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines in place for gyms. As to why they reopened, they said “we were at the point that if we did not open, we would have to let all our employees go and potentially close our business permanently.”

The Rameys said they repeatedly contacted the mayor about steps to resume business and were ignored and “when his office finally responded, we never received the information we needed.”

The Rameys are represented by the law firm Holmes, McLelland & Ferraez.

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