The Night the Lights Went Out on Georgia: The Enterprise Jazz Club’s Strange Legal Saga
One of the first things you notice inside The Enterprise Theater & Jazz Lounge is the glitz. The walls, curtains, furniture, bar, and stage are the sleek ebony shade of a black-box theater. The copper ceiling and trim, however, are painted gold. “That’s for my husband!” says Charletta “C.J.” Lewis, owner of the club, which is located at 2917 Georgia Ave. NW. “They’re his fraternity colors.”
It’s not just the décor that Lewis, 32, dedicated to her husband Kerry, an obstetrician and professor at Howard University Hospital. The whole club is for him. When he turned 50 last July, Charletta’s present was the getaway-within-the-city he’d always dreamed of—his own jazz club.
In other ways, however, The Enterprise is an unfinished project. Until last week, the lightbox sign over its door was barefaced. And although Lewis has leased the entire building, the unfinished second floor is closed at all times.
These are the outward signs of an ongoing legal dispute between the club and the property’s owner, Michael Ressom. On Jan. 10, three months after the Lewises, who are black, originally hoped to open the club, Charletta Lewis, through her lawyer Jimmy Bell, filed suit in federal court against Ressom for discrimination, fraud, and breach of contract.
The price tag? Two million dollars in compensatory and punitive damages.
But the most striking thing about the case isn’t its even hefty demands. It’s a memorandum attached to a motion to dismiss the suit that Ressom’s attorneys, Stephen C. Leckar and Neil D. Goldman, filed on Feb. 7. It addresses the discrimination charge, the one that places the case under federal jurisdiction.
“Defendant is a non-African-American man,” the memorandum begins, quoting Lewis’ complaint. Below that is a photograph of Ressom detailed from his naturalization certificate, documenting him as an immigrant from Ethiopia. The photograph shows a black face.
Leckar and his client Ressom declined to comment for this article.
“We’ll let our filing speak for itself,” Leckar says.
“What we’re really looking for is a Cotton Club-ish type of atmosphere,” Charletta Lewis said last September, a few days after The Enterprise held a soft opening. A “grand opening” followed in mid-October—made possible by a one-day Certificate of Occupancy—but for the rest of the fall, The Enterprise stayed dark.
The Enterprise finally opened last month, but in the interim, the owners had to place their ambitions—jazz, blues, and gospel music; weekly theater performances; free community programming—on hold. The delays stemmed from a somewhat bizarre permitting problem: When the District’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs inspected the venue last year, it placed a stop-work order on the club because of unlicensed changes to the building made by previous occupants.
The saga begins on July 28, when Lewis, a former behavior management specialist in several D.C. public charter schools, applied to DCRA for a certificate of occupancy. The agency denied her paperwork, because the building’s electrical, plumbing, and HVAC systems had been altered by previous tenants without permits or inspections.
“Plaintiff [Lewis] leased the premises because Defendant assured her that the building was in good order and up to code,” the suit says. According to the filing, when Lewis informed Ressom this was not the case and it had cost her a Certificate of Occupancy, “Defendant stated that he had a signed contract and that Defendant was required to pay her rent per the contract.”
A landlord-tenant dispute isn’t so bizarre. But the discrimination count complicates things. In the filing, Bell alleges a violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1866. “Defendants intentionally discriminated against Plaintiff…on account of the race (African-American) of Plaintiff,” it reads. “Plaintiff did not enjoy the services, privileges, benefits, and protections offered to other persons outside of Plaintiff’s [race].”
Specifically, Bell explains in an interview, this refers to Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham, whose campaign organization was headquartered at 2917 Georgia Ave. NW during the 2006 election cycle. Neither the lawsuit nor Bell specify what services and privileges Graham received from Ressom that Lewis did not, although he presumably believes Graham’s campaign made the unlicensed structural changes. Two other campaigns, current at-large councilmember Vincent Orange’s in 2010 and would-be at-large councilmember Jacque Patterson’s last spring, also occupied the space before Enterprise moved in. Last October, Graham told Washington City Paper his campaign did not make any structural changes to the building.
Nevertheless, Bell insists “the only thing different [from Graham] was my client’s race, her sex, and her source of income. And you cannot discriminate against a woman in the District of Columbia based on those three factors.” (The filing bases its claim “upon information and belief”; in February, Bell filed an amendment to his complaint alleging that Ressom made racist comments. Ressom, through his attorney, denies the charge.)
So what does Bell make of Ressom’s attorneys’ motion to dismiss?
“He’s not African-American!” Bell says, when asked if Ressom’s ethnicity damages his case. “African-American means you are a descendant of a slave! This guy’s an Ethiopian immigrant, who wasn’t naturalized as a citizen until November 2010.”
Later, he adds, “I’m not worried about the motion to dismiss. His attorney’s earning his fees. But he’s going to have to articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for his actions. We can’t wait for him to try to articulate that.”
For all his confidence, Mr. Bell has his work cut out for him. While there is no single, statutory definition of “African-American” in U.S. federal law, the one most often used in legal circles was coined by the U.S. Census Bureau: “A citizen or resident of the United States having origins in any of the Black racial groups of Africa.” There is no mention of slave ancestry, nor any exclusion of recent immigrants to the U.S.
That in itself is not necessarily a legal barrier. “That two people are of the same race doesn’t preclude racial discrimination. Anyone can unlawfully discriminate against someone else on the basis of race,” says Douglas Sparks, a D.C. attorney with an extensive background in civil rights and discrimination law. But, he adds, Bell’s characterization of Ressom as “non-African-American,” and his defense of that characterization despite the defendant’s ethnicity, “could be seen as a real stretch by a federal judge.”
The defense’s supporting memorandum raises a salient point, says Sparks: that Ressom did lease the premises to Lewis. “That was something Defendant presumably wouldn’t have done if he harbored intraracial animus,” the memorandum says. “Why he would intentionally discriminate against a fellow black and in favor of a different—albeit undefined—race is left unexplained by Plaintiff.”
“That’s the real question,” Sparks says. “If he didn’t like you because you’re black, why did he rent to you at all?”
The motion to dismiss also argues for dismissal of the other two counts, fraud and breach of contract—but admits they could be refiled in D.C. Superior Court. “Plaintiff has brought what should be a routine Superior Court commercial landlord-tenant case into federal court,” says the supporting memorandum.
In their motion, Ressom’s lawyers write, “Plaintiff has failed to attach copies of the two governing leases to the Complaint, and perhaps for good reason.” They note that the leases “state in plain-English that the premises were rented ‘As Is.’”
This, Bell argues, is immaterial: “You can’t lease a property that’s not up to code in the District of Columbia.” Providing the lease, Bell says, was a legally binding confirmation from Ressom that 2917 Georgia Ave. was up to code.
The case has been assigned to U.S. District Court Judge Beryl A. Howell; no hearings have been set. In mid-January, Bell told me he also intends to file suit against the District of Columbia alleging that prior tenants were able to obtain Certificates of Occupancy despite the unpermitted, uninspected work done on the building. So far, the second suit hasn’t materialized.
Inside the chic black-and-gold room she’s brought to life, Charletta Lewis seems remarkably resentment-free. Rather, she’s optimistic, talking about plans for a rooftop café once the dispute is settled. “I just keep hoping someone will come in with a solution,” she says. “One that’s good for me and for him, and we can all just move forward.” She says she hired Bell because of his reputation for being “very, very tough.”
DCRA gave The Enterprise its Certificate of Occupancy in time for it to open on Feb. 2. Lewis hired the house band, and established an artist-in-residence program with Howard-based group GGT as its first participant. There’s gospel music on Sundays, and Lewis is exploring possibilities for other styles that draw an urban, African-American crowd. “I’m looking for blues artists,” she says. “I know there are plenty of them here. And I’ve talked to several jazz artists, promoters, and others that I’m hoping to find room for on the schedule.”
Lewis saved room for her passion, too. “I told my husband, ‘If you’re gonna have your birthday stuff, I’m gonna have my theater!’” She engaged Pin Points Inc., a community theater based in Congress Heights, to perform weekly. Other events include movie screenings and discussions and spoken-word performances. Lewis says she’s determined to engage with the community. One night of the week is reserved for community events, which the Enterprise hosts rent-free.
To hear Lewis tell it, business is going well a month in. Shows by smooth-jazz saxophonist Jaared and the house band have packed the place. Still, Lewis says she’ll move The Enterprise if her dispute with Ressom isn’t resolved. “I’ll take it wherever I have to,” she says. “I can’t let go of my vision.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery
Charletta Lewis' lawsuit
Michael Ressom's motion to dismiss
Memorandum attached to motion to dismiss