Prestigious law firm sues burger joint over smell

The Washington Examiner

By Emily Babay

It’s a classic David and Goliath story: A white-shoe law firm staffed with hundreds of D.C.’s most-powerful lawyers has moved to shutter a hamburger eatery on the grounds that the lawyers didn’t like the aroma of cooking meat wafting into their offices.

So far, Goliath is winning.

D.C. Superior Court Judge John Mott ordered the restaurant, Rogue States on Connecticut Avenue near Dupont Circle, to shut down its grill this week. Neighboring law firm Steptoe & Johnson had sued the restaurant, saying the firm’s employees suffered nausea, watery eyes and headaches from Rogue States’ fumes.

The restaurant is closed because of “a powerful law firm that claims that the smell of our burgers is making it impossible for them to keep up the lawyering business,” reads a sign from feisty chef Raynold Mendizabal on its front window. The note is also posted on the Rogue States Web site.

The closing is “pretty crappy,” said D.C. resident Joshua Thornhill, who tried to meet a friend for lunch Thursday at the restaurant. “We’re going to have to find a new place to eat.”

Even amid heavy rain in downtown D.C. Thursday afternoon, passers-by stopped to read Mendizabal’s huge sign. Some called the situation “ridiculous” or “unbelievable,” while others simply stared. One man took a photograph.

On a street crowded with coffee shops and restaurants — including Indian, Middle East and Italian cuisines — many said the odors from Rogue State didn’t stand out.

“I never noticed the smell,” said Karel Leon, of Alexandria. He said Rogue State was “one of a kind” and had “the best burgers available.”

Several people who work in the area said the burger joint wasn’t the most-dominant aroma in the neighborhood, and the smells at the center of the law firm’s argument existed before the restaurant opened in February.

Steptoe filed a complaint in Superior Court against Rogue States in March, calling the establishment a nuisance and claiming the odors from its exhaust equipment harmed the firm’s employees.

“The smoke and food odors constitute an unreasonable interference with the use and enjoyment of the property, in that the smoke and food odors pose continuing health-related risks and otherwise interfere with the ordinary use and enjoyment of the property,” Steptoe’s complaint says.

The prestigious firm, whose alumni include corporate leaders, judges and government officials, argued that Rogue States’ second-floor exhaust vent expels fumes into Steptoe’s air-intake system.

The restaurant installed a scrubber system to ease the fumes after the suit was filed, but the firm claimed odor problems persisted.

Rogue State attorney Gary Adler said the restaurant is exploring its options for appeals and keeping the eatery open. He added that the judge’s ruling could “wreak havoc” on the restaurant industry.

“There are subjective comments about what causes an odor or what causes a problem,” he said. “When you base decisions on that, you’re going to have a very slippery slope.”

Lawyers for Steptoe and for Steptoe landlord Boston Properties did not return calls for comment. Boston Properties chairman of the board is media mogul Mortimer Zuckerman.

Would-be diners said they appreciated the note from the chef. District resident Jake Digregorio said he liked the restaurant’s candor.

“It’s nice to see someone going down swinging,” he said.

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