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June 19, 2023

Sign Pro sues Southington, claiming harassment

PHOTO | MICHELLE TUCCITTO SULLO Peter Rappoccio, founder and president of Sign Pro Inc., poses outside the business’ headquarters at 60 Westfield Dr., in the Plantsville section of Southington.

Signage business Sign Pro Inc. is suing its hometown of Southington and the municipality's chief building official, claiming it has been subjected to repeated harassment while trying to do business locally, costing it “hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

Sign Pro Inc. and Pro Realty LLC, both of 60 Westfield Dr., in the Plantsville section of Southington, and company founder and President Peter Rappoccio filed the lawsuit against Southington and Chief Building Official Jeffrey Pooler. 

The lawsuit claims the town required expensive last-minute changes to the company’s new building, and has delayed approvals for its signage projects, costing it time and money, for example. 

Sign Pro has been in business for about 33 years, and does work around the United States and Canada. It constructs, designs and installs signs. It has done projects for clients such as ESPN, LA Fitness, Connecticut State University, M&T Bank, Hartford Hospital, the New Britain Bees, state of Connecticut, Travelers and UConn. 

Speaking at his business in June, Rappoccio said filing a lawsuit was “the last thing we wanted to do — it’s not who we are.”

“The hard part is we cherish our local community, and never have issues with any other city or state other than the town of Southington,” Rappoccio said. “Our goal is to be treated as everyone else.”

Rappoccio asserted his business has been singled out and targeted for “blatant” harassment for more than two years. 

“We prefer to sit down and solve a problem, to try to handle things in the community and in good faith,” Rappoccio said. “We honestly have exhausted our options.”

Attorneys Glenn Dowd and Matthew Letten of Day Pitney in Hartford, who represent Sign Pro, wrote in the lawsuit that the plaintiffs have sued to “bring to light the disturbing pattern of behavior it has been subjected to as a business operating in the town of Southington.”

The litigation was initially filed in state Superior Court in April, but was transferred in May to U.S. District Court, where it remains pending. Judge Stefan R. Underhill is handling the case.

The 21-page lawsuit alleges Southington and its officials caused intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress, and have violated the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights to due process and equal protection. It seeks monetary damages.

Sign Pro launched in 1990 as a sign-making business, and in 2014, it opened its primary retail and manufacturing facility in Southington.

All municipalities have permitting and zoning requirements related to signage and installation.

The lawsuit says Sign Pro follows all requirements, but claims some of its competitors operate without necessary permits or licenses, which allows those competitors to charge less for their work. 

The lawsuit claims some Southington town officials asked Sign Pro to bring violations -- such as any companies installing signs without required licenses or permits -- to their attention, which it did, from approximately 2019 to 2022. 

“In connection with these reports, Sign Pro simply asked that the Town of Southington enforce its own rules,” the lawsuit states.

The litigation claims the town did not enforce its rules, and instead allowed companies violating the licensing and permitting rules to “continue operating with impunity.”

PHOTO | Michelle Tuccitto Sullo 
Sign Pro Inc. workers perform a job at Nutmeg Farms, a convenience store and gas station in Wolcott.

The company asserts violators should be reported to the state Department of Consumer Protection, and any signs installed without proper licensing or permitting should be removed. Improperly installed signs can pose a fire hazard or fall risk, such as if there is faulty wiring or improper mounting, according to Rappoccio.

'Unexplained delays'

Meanwhile, the lawsuit alleges the town and Pooler have “singled out Sign Pro for unfair treatment and harassment meant to harm Sign Pro’s business.”

It attributes this alleged harassment to retaliation because Sign Pro reported violators, “exposing (the defendants’) incompetence.”

For example, it alleges Southington officials retaliated by delaying and interfering with Sign Pro’s expansion project.

Sign Pro has its main retail and production facility at 60 Westfield Dr., which is visible from I-84. The business needed additional space, and in 2020, Sign Pro bought property nearby, at 161 Canal St., Plantsville, to build a 15,000-square-foot industrial building to store material and equipment.

The business submitted its plans to the town in October 2020, obtained permits and started construction, substantially completing the new facility in the summer of 2021.

According to the lawsuit, Pooler in August 2021 conducted an inspection at 161 Canal St., and for the first time demanded that an automatic sprinkler system be installed.

The lawsuit claims the defendants demanded multiple deviations from the approved plans for the Canal Street building, causing substantial delays and causing Sign Pro to incur “hundreds of thousands of dollars” in additional costs. 

Property at 161 Canal St., in the Plantsville section of Southington, where Sign Pro Inc. has a storage facility.

Sign Pro also claims the town has interfered with its work for clients in Southington. It alleges that other businesses' projects would be approved within three days, but it would take about a month, or sometimes several months, for Sign Pro to get the same approvals.

Sign Pro installed over 150 M&T Bank signs around Connecticut following M&T’s acquisition of People’s United Bank. According to the lawsuit, all of its M&T signs quickly passed inspections from building officials in all jurisdictions except for one — in Southington, for a bank at 1 Center St.

For another  job, at a shopping Southington plaza at 685 Queen St., Sign Pro’s permit applications to replace signs and awnings were “subject to months of unexplained delays,” the lawsuit claims.

“The selective and unfair treatment of plaintiffs was based on malicious and bad faith intent to damage plaintiffs’ business, reputation and standing in the community,” the lawsuit alleges.

Pooler, reached via telephone in June, declined to comment on the litigation. He deferred comment to the town’s Corporation Counsel Alex J. Ricciardone, who did not respond to requests for comment.

Attorneys Adam DiFulvio and Thomas Gerarde of the firm Howd & Ludorf in Wethersfield, who represent Southington and Pooler, also did not respond to requests for comment. Gerarde has requested a trial by jury, court documents show.

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