NJ Gym Owners Arrested Over COVID-19 Defiance

By Jeannie O'Sullivan
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Law360 (July 27, 2020, 10:46 AM EDT) -- The operators of the New Jersey gym hit with a contempt order Friday for defying COVID-19 mandates to limit business operations were arrested Monday morning, marking the latest chapter in the business' high-profile fight with Gov. Phil Murphy over the constitutionality of pandemic closure measures.

Atilis Gym co-owners Ian Smith, 33, and Frank Trumbetti, 51, each received a disorderly persons summons for one count each of contempt, obstruction and violation of the New Jersey Disaster Control Act, according to a statement from the Camden County Prosecutor's Office. The arrests occurred at 5:30 a.m. and the men have been released, according to Jim Mermigis, the duo's attorney.

The arrests come just three days after the gym was hit with a contempt order after the owners publicly announced their intention to continue to defy the coronavirus mandates.

Smith, of Delanco, and Trumbetti, of Williamstown, were depicted in an Instagram video Monday morning on Smith's account being handcuffed and escorted to a Bellmawr police SUV. Camden County Sheriff's Department officers were the authorities who initially came to the gym, Smith wrote in the caption.

"They took Frank and I away and boarded up our private place of business," Smith wrote.

The battle began in federal court with Atilis' May lawsuit alleging that Murphy's March shutdown of nonessential businesses runs 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 owners criticized the orders in interviews with local and national media outlets.

A New Jersey federal judge last month said the arguments had to move to state court, where Murphy and health officials already had an action pending over the gym's refusal to close.

As the court battle proceeded, state health officials compounded Murphy's mandate with an order for the gym to shutter. The order was modified July 1 to allow for individualized indoor instruction.

Per the modified order, should multiple simultaneous instructions take place, they must happen in separate rooms or be separated by a floor-to-ceiling barrier.

The state moved for contempt July 20 after Trumbetti and Smith announced to news outlets and on social media that they weren't planning to comply with the modified order, and had in fact violated it since July 4, but state court Judge Robert Lougy stopped short of sanctions.

Judge Lougy switched gears four days later and issued a contempt order after the state filed a motion detailing continued noncompliance that was unearthed by health department inspectors and a surveillance team.

Investigators were able to observe that staffers had no face masks or personal protective equipment; that masks were not required for workers and patrons; that windows were covered with paper; and that there were no required floor-to-ceiling partitions.

A representative for Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal said in a statement that Smith and Trumbetti defied the contempt order, forcing their arrest and the gym's closure.

"As the attorney general previously said, the state wishes it had not come to this, but the gym refused to comply even with a contempt order," the statement said.

New Jersey is represented by Stephen Slocum of the attorney general's office.

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

The case is Persichilli v. Atilis Gym of Bellmawr, case number MER-C-48-20, in the Superior Court of New Jersey, Mercer Vicinage Chancery.

--Editing by Rebecca Flanagan.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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