Downtown Fullerton bar owner gets entertainment hours curbed, loses libel suit

Last summer, JP23 Urban Kitchen and Bar in downtown Fullerton became the site of protests against rape culture after a young woman claimed she was drugged at the popular nightclub before being raped at a nearby parking garage.

More women came forward with stories of their own, on social media and out in front of JP23. The protests became a weekly event as tensions remained high.

Nightclub owner Jacob Poozhikala filed several lawsuits in the aftermath.

He took Fullerton and its police department to court for alleged due process and equal protection violations over an attempt to renew an entertainment permit. He also filed libel and slander suits against the alleged rape victim and two people who supported her, including Luis Huang, an Orange County resident who emailed Fullerton City Council members about the protests.

But Poozhikala’s problems with the city began before that.

According to court documents, the JP23 proprietor applied in October 2020 to have an entertainment permit renewed for the venue so that it could continue hosting DJs and dancing every night from 9:30 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. The coronavirus pandemic and changing business restrictions delayed the process before Fullerton Police Chief Bob Dunn took a closer look at the nightclub.

He called for a remedy meeting on Aug. 27, 2021, over the permit renewal.

Dunn cited a high volume of service calls around the venue between September 2020 and July 2021. According to Fullerton P.D. statistics, the calls resulted in 44 criminal offense reports and 50 arrests within that time frame.

The calls centered on a host of complaints including assaults, overcrowding, drug possession and even an attempted murder.

The police chief’s Aug. 17, 2021, letter to Poozhikala also noted that JP23 exceeded capacity limits during a fire marshal check earlier that summer when 333 patrons were counted indoors, a violation Dunn found “especially troubling” given the owner’s prior conviction for misdemeanor overcrowding.

Lighting, queuing and opaque window coverings at the business rounded out the rest of Dunn’s list of concerns. He even addressed the “spiking” and sexual assault allegation that prompted protests.

At the height of tensions, JP23 posted surveillance footage showing the alleged victim at the nightclub on the night in question. The video appeared to sway the public opinion of some against the alleged victim while further inflaming accusations by her supporters that the nightclub perpetuated “victim blaming” rape culture.

The bar eventually deleted the video, but not before Dunn gave a closer look.

He characterized the women in the video as “obviously intoxicated,” a state, he wrote, that the bar “contributed to through the over service of alcohol, which according to reports includes at least one ‘fishbowl’ drink,” intended for six patrons but often imbibed by fewer.

Dunn even considered limiting the bar to single-drink service only.

During the remedy meeting, Poozhikala noted how he made changes made to his security program, removed opaque film from JP23’s windows and stopped the bar from serving “fishbowl” drinks among other changes, including training staff to adopt a code word for suspected drink-spiking incidents.

Dunn commended Poozhikala’s candor but noted his belief that late live entertainment hours at JP23 contributed to the calls for service outlined in his letter.

In September, he temporarily renewed the venue’s permit under the conditions that live entertainment end by 10 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday and by 11 p.m. Thursday through Saturday.

Poozhikala had 30 days from the date of the Aug. 27 remedy meeting to demonstrate compliance before further review. He sent a letter to Dunn claiming that since he couldn’t appeal the chief’s decision, it constituted a due process violation.

On Sept. 24, Dunn responded with a letter to Jennifer Harris, an attorney representing Poozhikala, informing her he had decided to revoke the temporary permit.

“The remedy meeting procedure was merely an optional procedure to use to try and resolve issues which has proven to be unsuccessful,” Dunn wrote. “We have chosen to abandon it at this point.”

Poozhikala exercised his right to appeal and have a hearing before City Council; he also sued Fullerton and its police department in December.

In court documents, the complaint on Poozhikala’s behalf claimed that any relevant investigation into his business practices should have been focused on the year prior to his October 2020 permit renewal request, not after.

“The Fullerton Municipal Code utilized to ‘revoke’ JP23’s permit is invalid and unconstitutional,” the suit further argued.

Fullerton’s interim city manager declined to comment on the suit and its claims.

In December, Fullerton City Council held a hearing over the permit unrelated to any litigation.

Poozhikala testified that almost half of his revenue came from patrons that arrived to JP23 between 9 and 10 p.m. Dunn told council members that he believed the nightclub’s live entertainment hours should be curbed at midnight on weekends and 11 p.m. on weekdays.

The council found Dunn’s suggestion reasonable and deemed Poozhikala’s testimony to be an “unproven concern for loss of business.”

In January, four council members voted to issue an entertainment permit to JP23 with the live entertainment limitations Dunn suggested; Mayor Pro Tem Bruce Whitaker abstained from the closed session vote.

The formal recommendations were adopted this week at council.

“JP23 will be seeking further review from the Superior Court of the City Council decision,” said Harris. “The lawsuit alleging constitutional issues regarding the Fullerton Municipal Code is still ongoing.”

Lawsuit against Huang dismissed

While Poozhikala claimed Fullerton stifled his free speech rights in one case, a separate libel lawsuit he filed against Huang was dismissed this week by Orange County Superior Court Judge Gregory H. Lewis.

Huang sent an Oct. 26 email addressed to Fullerton City Council members about the JP23 protests. It was also addressed to Pete Hardin, a candidate for Orange County district attorney, and a local blogger. Huang referenced a Fullerton Observer article on the protests and invited council members to speak with alleged victims.

The correspondence somehow made its way back to Poozhikala, who then filed a libel and slander suit against Huang. Harris offered no comment as to how her client came into possession of the email.

“I have to say, I was pretty shocked,” Jeff Lewis, an attorney representing Huang unrelated to the judge, said of the suit. “California law is pretty clear that you can communicate with lawmakers without fear of civil liability.”

The suit, which was filed in November, claimed the correspondence caused damage to Poozhikala’s reputation and harmed his business.

“In Huang’s email, he states that there are allegations of more than 40 sexual assault survivors, who have shared their traumatic story of being roofied and raped by the owner of JP23 and the security guards at JP23’s Fullerton and Long Beach locations,” the complaint read. “The entire email is false.”

Huang’s attorney made a motion to strike the suit under the state’s anti-SLAPP law.

Judge Lewis found that the email constituted “protected speech” in a tentative ruling before formally dismissing the suit on Monday.

“We are pleased that the Superior Court recognized this lawsuit for what it was — an improper attempt to silence a voice through expensive litigation,” said Jeff Lewis. “I hope that the plaintiffs here will focus their time and money on making their establishments as safe as they can rather than pursue further frivolous lawsuits.”

Harris stated to TimesOC that Poozhikala will appeal Judge Lewis’ decision.

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