A Fresno restaurant owner says a Fresno city councilman illegally interfered with a business project. Now, he wants Miguel Arias and City Hall to pay.
David Fansler, in a lawsuit filed last week, says Arias tried to extort him to drop ongoing litigation by holding up a hotel project. Fansler purchased land near his Pismo’s Coastal Grill in north Fresno — with the intention to lease to a yet-unnamed company to build a high-end hotel.
Arias “purposefully and maliciously” delayed the project, costing Fansler time, money, and emotional distress, states the lawsuit filed on April 4 in Fresno County Superior Court. Only Arias and the city of Fresno are listed as defendants.
The new lawsuit is in addition to a suit Fansler filed against Arias, several other city officials, and the city itself in 2020, related to COVID closures and subsequent fines for keeping his restaurant open. The new lawsuit references the ongoing litigation several times.
“I believe that the delay was based upon Miguel Arias wanting to use leverage in another civil matter, which is not appropriate,” Warren Paboojian, the attorney representing Fansler, told GV Wire.
Paboojian has several multi-million dollar verdicts for his clients on his resume, including against Fresno State and Chipotle.
Arias said he would provide GV Wire with a response soon. The city declined to comment because litigation is pending.
Lawsuit: Project Delayed as Settlement Tactic
Fansler — who also owns Yosemite Ranch and Westwoods BBQ — sought to rezone property he owned near his Pismo’s restaurant, in the shopping center at the southwest corner of Blackstone and Nees avenues — from high-density housing to mixed-use.
Although Fansler proposed no specific plans at the time, it won approval from the planning department, and a 4-0 Sept. 7 vote from the planning commission. The city council was scheduled to hear it on Nov. 17, but it was tabled without discussion until Dec. 15 and again until Jan. 19, both at the request of city councilman Mike Karbassi.
The lawsuit blames Arias for holding the project “hostage” even though technically it was tabled by Karbassi.
“We have information that I can’t reveal at this time, but in this case it was not Karbassi, that there was a meeting that indicated that it was Miguel Arias that did it and that was his plan,” Paboojian said.
Karbassi, speaking to GV Wire after this story first published, said he delayed the vote to wait for Annalisa Perea to officially join the council. She won election in June 2022 and scheduled to be sworn-in the following January.
Perea took her seat a few weeks early, on Dec. 14, 2022 completing the term of Esmeralda Soria — who left early to take her newly-won state Assembly seat.
The lawsuit alleges that Arias’ delay of the rezone was an “attempt to ‘get leverage’ against Fansler.” This violated Fansler’s due process and Constitutional rights, the lawsuit contends.
At the Jan. 19 council meeting, Arias asked the city attorney if pending litigation was a reason to reject a project. The answer from Raj Singh Bashesha, assistant city attorney: “We need some time to analyze that question. We can’t answer that right now.”
The lawsuit cites the question as “further evidence of Defendant Arias’ outrageous conduct and the intent to intimidate and harass a constituent and to refuse to vote on Fansler’s Application.”
The Fresno City Council approved Fansler’s rezone request on a 5-2 vote. Arias was critical of the rezone because of the potential loss of housing and voted against it. He was joined by Nelson Esparza.
Allegation: Arias Attempted ‘to Commit a Crime’
The new lawsuit alleges that Arias’ “conduct was outrageous and beyond the bounds of decency in attempting to commit a crime, extortion, in order to get Plaintiff to settle a pending lawsuit.”
The complaint says Arias “wanted to ‘make a spectacle’ of any City Council action” involving Fansler’s project. Arias allegedly “asked another council member if ‘we can use this as leverage to get out of Fansler’s suit.” There is no corroborating evidence listed of when, how, or to whom Arias made those statements.
Paboojian, representing Fansler in court, said he could not comment about the evidence.
“It’s going to be part of the trial,” Paboojian said.
Fansler is asking for unspecified damages.
Cases in Court in August
The recently filed lawsuit will be in court for the first time on Aug. 2 in front of Judge Robert Whalen for a case management conference.
Fansler’s 2020 lawsuit about fines for operating Pismo’s during the pandemic returns to court on Aug. 30 for a case management conference, also in front of Whalen.
The city is seeking to remove the elected leaders named in the suit — current councilmembers Arias, Luis Chavez, and Esparza; former mayor Lee Brand, and former councilmembers Esmeralda Soria and Paul Caprioglio.