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Monday, May 27, 2024

Historic High Springs restaurant facing foreclosure

Lawsuit seeks over $2 million in damages and property recovery

Servers work behind the counter at the Pink Flamingo Diner on Sunday Oct. 1, 2023.
Servers work behind the counter at the Pink Flamingo Diner on Sunday Oct. 1, 2023.

The Pink Flamingo Diner and Great Outdoors Restaurant, staples of High Springs’ hospitality district, have hosted members of the community for nearly 10 years now. Kelly Price, a 33-year-old Newberry resident, has many memories of the restaurants.

“I’ve been going to the Great Outdoors every year for my birthday since I moved to Newberry five years ago,” she said. 

Birthdays aren’t the only milestones Price has shared with family at the restaurant. Two years ago, she discovered she was finally going to be an aunt in the brown leather wrap-around booth tucked into the corner of the restaurant. A year after that, she held her 6-month-old nephew in the same booth. 

“You can see why it’s hard to say goodbye,” Price said. 

Price may have to say goodbye because the Community State Bank is foreclosing the Pink Flamingo Diner and Great Outdoors Restaurant in High Springs. The bank is seeking over $2 million in damages in addition to lawyers’ fees, interest on the loan and reclamation of the properties. 

The bank filed the suit Sept. 12 and named Dae Jung Kim, Radiant Life Ecoville LLC, High Springs Ecoville LLC and Springs Life LLC as borrowers of a $2 million commercial promissory note. 

The note, designated for “investment” purposes according to documents presented in the suit, created a repayment schedule of 35 monthly payments beginning in May 2021 and a final payment initially due in March 2024. However, the bank pushed the payment due date up and initiated the suit when the borrowers could not repay the remaining balance. 

The bank performed a value calculation through the Alachua County Clerk of Court to determine the amount owed on the loan. The document, filed on the same day as the suit, stated that $1.99 million of the initial $2 million loan had not been paid. The principal remaining, combined with over $90,000 due in interest, resulted in the suit demanding about $2.1 million from the borrowers. 

The suit lists the specific amount due from Kim as a minimum. The mortgage, which was signed on March 18, 2021, holds the borrowers financially responsible for the default proceedings, covering additional costs like filing charges and attorney fees. Savannah Martin, a 23-year-old second-year law student at UF, said these additional costs could be steep. 

“In some cases, attorney fees can be more than the damages in the suit itself,” she said. “It wouldn’t surprise me if the total damages in the case were closer to $2.5 million by the end of litigation.” 

Poor treatment motivates the other case being brought against the Diner at the moment. Luis Cabassa from Wenzel Fenton Cabassa, P.A. is suing the restaurant for damages in excess of $30,000 for violation of the Florida Private Whistleblower’s Act (FWPA) on behalf of Julie Smith, a former diner employee. 

The FWPA, a Florida statute filed in 2011, prohibits employers from taking “any retaliatory personnel action against an employee” because the employee initiates or cooperates with a governmental investigation into the company’s wrongdoing. 

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Smith’s complaint, which was initially filed in October 2022 and amended in January 2023, alleges she was demoted, and subsequently fired, because she informed the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation that diner management used “an unlicensed contractor to perform contracting and plumbing services.” 

The response submitted by the defendant, listed as Dae Jung Kim on behalf of the diner, contradicts Smith’s complaint and levels accusations of forgery against her. 

On Feb. 16, 2022, the city of High Springs was going to shut its water off for repairs. Restaurant management called Luis Serrano, a handyman who had previously helped in the restaurant, to “determine if the irrigation well was connected to the restaurant.” The complaint says Serrano did some minor repairs to the restaurant, but “there was no plumbing work done in the pump house.” 

Kim claims Smith committed another act of forgery by adding “plumbing well” to the Pink Flamingo check stub to give the impression that Serrano had performed unlicensed work on the restaurant’s plumbing system. The complaint states Smith wrote this “in the line above to whom the payment was made,” which was inconsistent with other check stubs reviewed. 

Alice Leis, a 71-year-old DBPR investigator, handled the investigation and confirmed Serrano’s actions did not cross the line into “unlicensed plumbing,” so the complaint was dropped.

Molly Finzer, a 36-year-old former employee of one of Kim’s companies, said she left her job because management took retaliatory action on all the employees after Smith’s case was filed. 

“For whatever reason, despite our business being profitable and a quite large amount on the bottom line, he wanted to cut my employees’ pay,” she said. “He told me that I needed to cut two different categories of my employees’ pay by significant amounts and cut it retroactively to the last pay week without their knowledge, and if I did not do so, I would be fired.” 

Finzer worked in a management position with Celebrations Catering and left her job in May after refusing to make the cuts her boss demanded. Despite leaving the job nearly five months ago, she maintains contact with some current employees and says that the management continues to treat employees poorly. 

“They’re cutting pay, cutting hours, demanding more work of them for less pay and less hours,” Finzer said. “I just can’t believe what they’re doing and the amount of people that they’re willing to lose in the process.” 

Contact Bea Lunardini at blunardi@alligator.org. Follow her on Twitter @bealunardini 

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