Defiant NJ Gym Sues To Invalidate Virus Shutdown Orders

By Jeannie O'Sullivan
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Law360 (May 27, 2020, 6:06 PM EDT) -- The New Jersey gym that gained national attention for defying Gov. Phil Murphy's COVID-19 shutdown of nonessential businesses has filed a lawsuit seeking to invalidate the executive orders, arguing they violate its constitutional rights.

Atilis Gym Bellmawr LLC may never recover financially after it was forced to close because of Murphy's mandate, according to the complaint filed in New Jersey federal court late Tuesday. The suit targets the original March order and two 30-day extensions Murphy signed in May amid public health officials' emphasis on social distancing to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The orders run afoul of federal civil rights laws as well as the due process and equal protection clauses of the Fifth and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, the Camden County gym argued. Atilis warned the orders would inflict "massive and widespread economic damage" if left intact.

"As well-intentioned as these orders are with respect to the general public's health, safety and welfare, they have come at a steep price with respect to the complete and utter restraint on New Jerseyans' civil rights and liberties," the complaint said.

The gym may "end up entirely out of business" as a result of the shutdown mandate, according to the complaint. Atilis is seeking a declaration that the mandates are unconstitutional, in addition to attorney fees and costs. Aside from Murphy, the suit lists Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal, state Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli and State Police Superintendent Patrick J. Callahan as defendants.

The suit is just the latest in a wave of backlash to the Garden State coronavirus mandates. Second Amendment advocates in March launched a now-dismissed complaint arguing that the designation of gun shops as nonessential violates their right to bear arms. Murphy later updated the orders to include firearms stores among essential businesses.

On Friday, a group of evangelical churches launched a federal complaint claiming Murphy's orders violate freedom of religion. They're opposing Murphy's limitation on crowds, which must be capped at 25 people.

Murphy has justified the shutdown orders during daily press updates about the coronavirus case count and death toll, frequently emphasizing the need for social distancing. New Jersey has been one of the states hit hardest by the virus, trailing only New York in the number of positive cases and casualties.

Atilis made local and national headlines after it reopened on May 18 in defiance of the shutdown orders. Co-owner Ian Smith became a vocal critic of Murphy's orders, appearing on the Fox News show "Tucker Carlson Tonight" and drawing coverage from Philadelphia-area newspapers and TV news stations.

In the complaint, the gym claimed it took "extraordinary precautions" to protect its members from the coronavirus, including installing a biometric thermal scanner that would take members' temperatures as soon as they entered. The gym also limited capacity to 20% in order to respect social distancing orders and required members to fill out health questionnaires and wear face masks, the complaint said.

Despite the safety measures, the reopening was met with fierce opposition from the Murphy administration, according to the complaint. The state Department of Health issued a May 20 shutdown order without inspecting the premises, and on May 23 the defendants executed a "physical invasion taking" by changing the locks, Atilis claimed.

"The stakes for immediate relief from this court for plaintiff could not be higher," the complaint said.

A representative for the New Jersey Office of the Attorney General declined to comment, and attorneys for Atilis didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.

Smith posted the complaint on his Instagram page, noting that the social media forum had sent him a message indicating the post was flagged as false information.

"Repost this bad boy!" Smith said in a comment on the post.

The gym is represented by Christopher Arzberger and James G. Mermigis of The Mermigis Law Group PC.

Counsel information for the defendants wasn't available.

The case is Atilis Gym Bellmawr LLC v. Philip D. Murphy et. al., case no. 1:20-cv-06347, in U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey.

--Editing by Amy Rowe.

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Attached Documents

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Case Information

Case Title


Case Number



New Jersey

Nature of Suit

Civil Rights: Other


Robert B. Kugler

Date Filed

May 26, 2020


Government Agencies

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