Hard Times wins motion in battle with city

by Jessica Thompson

The West Bank’s Hard Times Cafe won a small victory Thursday in its two-year battle with the city of Minneapolis to stay in business.

The Hennepin County 4th District Judicial Court ruled in favor of an inquiry into Hard Times’ claims. The cafe said City Council members cajoled each other and considered outside evidence before voting in June 2000 to revoke the cafe’s operating license.

But in a sign of cooperation between Hard Times and the city, the cafe agreed to drop the motion to compel discovery if the city agrees during a settlement conference not to revoke its license. The date of the conference has yet to be announced.

“What the Hard Times wants is just to get its license and be left alone,” said Hard Times attorney Jordan Kushner in an interview after the hearing. “If the city gives back the license, then this case (against the city) is moot.”

City Attorney Timothy Skarda said the city is prepared to comply with the motion to compel discovery and said the city’s only objection is that the cafe’s request was “somewhat broad.”

Skarda added that the “political framework has changed … the time would be right to have a settlement discussion.”

The motion to compel discovery requires that council members disclose all documents and e-mails exchanged prior to the decision to revoke the cafe’s license.

The cafe’s attorneys said 3rd Ward Council Member Joe Biernat arranged for police officers to lobby the council to close the cafe.

But the prime target of allegations is Council Member Joan Campbell, who represents the area where the cafe is located.

Hard Times supporters
speculated Campbell wanted to close the cafe because of its diverse clientele and liberal management system. But council members cited drug sales as their primary motive to close the cafe.

“There’s larger businesses that have had much bigger problems, but they haven’t been targeted,” said Miki Takata, Hard Times co-owner. “We can’t pat down everyone who comes through our doors.”

In the courtroom Thursday, a handful of cafe workers and supporters chatted optimistically about the changing City Council they said they hoped would be more sympathetic.


Hard Times and the city

The legal battle between Hard Times and the city began after a Jan. 26, 2000, raid, when undercover police arrested two men – one of whom was a Hard Times co-owner – for allegedly selling small amounts of marijuana.

The co-owner, Martin Johnson, was charged with selling drugs, but an administrative law judge found the cafe was not involved in drug trafficking. Still, the court concluded the presence of illegal activity warranted “good cause” for adverse action by the City Council.

Hard Times’ attorneys went before the Minnesota Court of Appeals in February arguing council members considered outside evidence – including a list of 911 calls from the cafe – which caused members to vote against the business.

“The cafe didn’t have a fair trial,” said Larry Leventhal, another Hard Times attorney. “(The council members) made up their mind ahead of time rather than sitting as an impartial evidentiary body.”

Skarda argued that the council members decided to revoke the cafe’s license based on its history of drug sales. He said any inadmissible evidence that council members considered was insignificant.

The Court of Appeals ruled it was “unable to determine to what extent (outside evidence) tainted the council’s decision,” and moved the case to the district court.

Campbell and Biernat were not available for comment, but in an interview earlier this year, Campbell said the panel “was straightforward, and they stuck to information received by the administrative law judge.”

Barring a prior settlement, the City Council has 30 days to produce the documents in question.


Jessica Thompson welcomes comments at [email protected]