The game room lawsuit pits the University against the arcade's owners. It could go to trial any day. Top University administrators, including University President Judith Rodin, gave depositions and may testify at the trial. Two powerful Center City law firms are butting heads. And the seven-month legal battle has spawned an 8-inch stack of court documents. All over a video arcade and laundry? But that's what has happened since April 18, when city regulators, working closely with University officials, shut down University Laundry and University Pinball at 4006-4008 Spruce Street. At the time, officials claimed the 24-hour businesses were a nuisance that attracted crime to the edge of campus. The Schoepe family, which owns the businesses, cried foul, accusing the University and the city of Philadelphia of violating their due-process rights in a federal lawsuit filed April 24. The establishments reopened the following day under a court order requiring them to close between 2 a.m. and 8 a.m. The fact that the Schoepes didn't get a hearing before their businesses were closed "does seem problematic," according to Larry Frankel, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Pennsylvania chapter. The University filed a countersuit in June, accusing the Schoepes of knowingly allowing their businesses to attract criminal activity. While the city paid the Schoepes $60,000 to settle its part of the case in September, U.S. District Court Judge Marvin Katz recently ordered that neither the University's nor the Schoepes' attorneys can mention the settlement in their opening statements. The lawsuits have sat in Katz's trial pool since November 3, which means that he can call the case to trial on 24 hours' notice. Attorneys expect the trial to last about eight days. Lawyers for the University and the Schoepes have declined to comment on the case. At stake are charges that the University is racist and improperly used its clout as the city's largest private employer to close the businesses. Additionally, the suit threatens the University's year-old stated goal of improving the 40th Street area -- the site where a student was shot and wounded in September 1996. Schoepe attorneys accuse the University of wanting to close the businesses because it didn't like their main clientele, which is primarily local African-American and Asian-American youths, not Penn students. University attorneys claim that the game room's customers urinate in the streets, beat up students, get into fights, steal cars and smoke marijuana. Attorneys for the Schoepes, however, counter that University Police handled 36 incidents at 4006 Spruce Street between February 1996 and February 1997, compared with 254 incidents at the Wawa convenience store at 38th and Spruce streets during the same period. Shane Lipson, president of Penn-Watch, the student-run town watch group, said the organization -- which was founded in 1995 and patrols the area from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. Sunday through Thursday -- has never responded to or called police to report an incident at University Pinball, which is also known as the "game room." While Lipson stressed that he doesn't have first-hand knowledge of the lawsuits, he said he believes "the University has a duty to take all legal steps possible to protect all members of the University community." Although the Schoepes claim just $2,244.87 in compensatory damages -- a week's worth of revenue from the arcade and laundry, according to court documents -- they seek additional punitive damages, emotional distress damages and attorneys' fees. And the University seeks unspecified damages "including expenditures for police responses and a loss of reputation and difficulties in attracting students, faculty and staff," the University's pretrial memorandum states. But a federal jury will determine more than just damages in the case. In addition to the charges of racism, the jury may decide whether University Police -- whose 100 officers make it one of the state's largest private forces -- is allowed to patrol private property not owned by Penn. After the University created a 40th Street Action Team -- composed of administrators and students -- to improve the corridor between Sansom Street and Baltimore Avenue, University officials discussed buying the Schoepes' properties on the 4000 block of Spruce Street. But the talks failed to produce an agreement last January. University officials then met twice, in February and March, with officials from the District Attorney's Public Nuisance Task Force to discuss the two businesses. University Police also "conducted undercover video surveillance of the corner of 40th and Spruce" streets, according to a court document filed by both sides. College senior Jae Lee, who was assaulted in the game room last February by two men -- one of whom also assaulted a University Police officer -- said the interconnected businesses "definitely" cause problems for students by attracting crime. But Lee said he didn't know "if that's a good enough reason to close down the place." Blank, Rome, Comisky & McCauley, which has 191 attorneys and is the sixth-largest Philadelphia law firm according to the National Law Journal, is representing the University. Fox, Rothschild, O'Brien & Frankel LLP, representing the Schoepes, has 150 lawyers and is the city's 11th-largest firm.Comments powered by Disqus
Please note All comments are eligible for publication in The Daily Pennsylvanian.