This story has been updated on Monday, Feb. 24.
Earlier this month, drama broke out in the form of physical fights at the opening party of VH1's insanely popular "Love and Hip Hop Atlanta" stars Benzino and Stevie J's Sleazy and Zino Bistro and Bar in downtown Atlanta. (You can read about the absurdities here.)
The over-the-top happenings that night led to a dispute over who controlled the bar, according to the attorney representing some of the owners. The two sides went to court Thursday. The Fulton County judge, T. Jackson Bedford Jr., stopped one set of owners from holding events there without Stevie J and Benzino until further notice, based on a restraining order issued Feb. 24.
Here's what happened:
Two days after that opening party, Benzino and Stevie J (plus their partner Dave Mays) found the alarm code and key locks changed on the doors of the building and their sign taken down. Their business partners had locked them out.
According to a lawsuit filed earlier this week with the Fulton County superior court, the trio (as RND Consulting and the Kompany) had signed an agreement in December, 2013 with defendants K. Christopher Edwards, Kevin Edwards, Dartez Daniel and Red Ultra Lounge LLC. (The space had previously been Red Ultra Lounge.) The defendants were also identified as 182 Courtland (the address of the locale) and KCEC in the lawsuit.
At the time, the defendants had a lease agreement and a liquor license from the landlord. Benzino, Stevie J and Mays, according to the lawsuit, "agreed to operate a lounge concept based upon the reality television series 'Love & Hip Hop Allanta' (the 'Show'). The parties agreed to name the lounge 'Sleazy & Zino Bistro & Bar' (the 'Venue'). The Venue would be located at the Property."
The plaintiffs spent about $23,000 for a new sign and modest improvements inside the space. The plaintiffs opened on Dec. 31, 2013 and held several events in January. The grand opening (which I attended) was Feb. 5.
As part of the agreement, the lawsuit said, the defendants were also supposed to "repair a hole in the VIP deck, repaint the interior and exterior of the Property, paint and varnish the floors within the Venue, and pay the annual renewal for the liquor license, all of which KCEC and 182 Courtland have failed to perform."
As a result of being locked out, the "Love and Hip Hop" folks had to cancel several events this month. So they filed a "cease and desist" letter, followed by this lawsuit to get control of the space.
In the interim, the other owners were getting ready to open a new bar called Frixion Ultra Lounge, the lawsuit said.
"Plaintiffs believe that their operation of the Venue was expected to be a major story line on the Show, which would've garnered national attention for the Venue. As a result of the actions of KCEC and 182 Courtland, a number of scheduled productions at the Venue could not take place."
The plaintiffs also allege the defendants did not place credit-card revenue into a joint account, pocketing it all for themselves.
According to Mays (Benzino's long-time business partner going back to their Source magazine days), a Fulton County judge Thursday granted them control of the building - at least that's how he interpreted the verbal comments from the judge.
There are still some issues with a third party concerning the liquor license but Mays hopes to get that resolved soon.
"We have the keys," Mays said to me in an exclusive interview. "We will be reopening soon. We'll be going to be introducing some new and bigger features at the venue and it sounds like we may have to do a second grand opening at some point in the future."
"His clients are banned from the property and banned from conducting any business at the property," he added. "That's pretty clear, I'd say."
Attorney Ken Newby, representing the defendants, said on Friday before the issue was ordered that he doesn't believe, based on the judge's comments, that the plaintiffs have total control of the building indefinitely. The order made it clear that the plaintiffs were allowed to hold an event there on Feb. 22 as previously scheduled. (The event did not end up happening there.)
The order keeps the defendants from holding any events at the site until further notice. They also have to return all signage to the plaintiffs and cannot remove anything from the property. At the same time, "This Order is not intended to provide Plaintiffs or Defendants with any unilateral rights to host, plan or coordinate any events, other than the February 22 event, at the Property."
The judge gave the defendants until March 15 to provide full accounting of income and expenses generated since Dec. 31, when the two sides began holding events together.
Newby said his clients were appalled by the behavior they saw on Feb. 5 where a fight broke out and pot smoking was evident. (Yup, I smelled it.)
"It’s my client's desire not to have that behavior ever occur on the premises again," Newby said.
Newby's client did say under oath that he smokes weed himself occasionally, according to Mays. (I was not at the hearing.)
The order does not reference pot smoking or fights. It merely asks the plaintiffs, while filming "Love and Hip Hop Atlanta," to "comply with the laws of the State of Georgia."
"The parties have to talk and see if they can resolve it," Newby said after the order came out. "The plaintiffs were not given sole control of the property."
Did the actions during that Feb. 5 party void the agreement the two sides signed in December? "This is an on-going dispute," Newby said. "I cannot comment." But he noted that Benzino and Stevie J do not own the building and the partnership agreement with his clients were short term anyway : nine months.
"Love and Hip Hop Atlanta," season three, returns in May. I'm sure some of these legal shenanigans will pop up on the show as well.