David and Allyn Gibson, the father-and-son duo who owns Gibsons Bakery, filed a lawsuit on Tuesday against Oberlin College and its Dean of Students, Meredith Raimondo. The eight counts alleged in the lawsuit amount to $200,000 and include charges of libel, intentional infliction of emotional distress, engaging in deceptive trade practices, tortious interference with contract, and other accusations that resulted in “severe and permanent economic damage as well as substantial distress,” according to the court filings.
The 32-page lawsuit comes on the one-year anniversary of a series of protests and boycotts directed at Gibsons Bakery after an alleged incident of racial profiling and student shoplifting.
In any other fiscal year, $200,000 in damages might not constitute breaking news for an institution with an endowment of $820 million. But Oberlin College entered the 2017-2018 school year with an unexpectedly small first-year class. The conservative target enrollment for first-year students was 805. The number they met was 742, putting the institution’s starting-line deficit at $5 million.
Either way you look at it, settling the lawsuit out of court or disputing it in trial is going to cost the College money at a time when it is looking to cut operational spending.
But Oberlin may have more to lose than money in a legal battle with Gibsons Bakery. Going to court is a move with probable consequence for an administration responding just days before to an Associated Press article on last year’s student protests and an Inside Higher Ed investigation of Oberlin College’s faculty pay freeze. Additionally, the Gibsons filed their lawsuit in the Lorain County Court of Common Pleas, meaning any evidence and transcripts from the trial will be made available to the public. With liberal arts institutions like Oberlin College already under the national microscope, squaring off in court with a family-owned business will almost certainly make national news.
But before Oberlin College makes headlines (again), I would like to make one thing clear: Gibsons Bakery is not representative of the City of Oberlin. While it will be tempting for outsiders looking in to characterize the Gibsons lawsuit as another failed attempt at town-gown relations, precedent tells us the opposite is true. Despite serving “Oberlin and America since 1885,” Gibsons Bakery has earned a reputation for itself as an institution both a part of and apart from the community to which it belongs.
Four Gibsons and Sixty Years Earlier
In 1958 the Gibsons family owned Gibson’s Bakery as it does today, but it also owned a block of property consisting of four housing units and a hen house on West Lorain Street. Evidently, Bert Gibson, the great-great-grandfather of current store owner Allyn Gibson, had long-held plans to build an apartment complex in place of the hen house. So Bert took it upon himself to apply for a building permit to construct an apartment complex consisting of twelve “suites,” as he called them (in reality, twelve 807-square-foot units).
When Bert’s application landed on the desk of Richard Dunn, Oberlin’s City Manager at the time, Dunn “was placed in a serious predicament,” writes former Oberlin Professor Aaron Wildavsky and author of Leadership in a Small Town. Although Bert’s proposal to build an apartment complex “did not violate any of the existing zoning laws,” it did “violate several of the current standards of good planning.” That is, Dunn felt the 807-square-foot-suites, which Gibson had proposed would house families, were too crowded to approve. Although Oberlin’s policy did not reflect this, the minimum square footage recommended for a family unit at the time was 2,000 feet.
This reasoning moved Dunn to object to Bert’s proposal, citing a zoning regulation that required new structures to be built at least 30 feet from roads. While Bert’s apartment complex would have been constructed 150 feet from West Lorain Street, it would only be six feet from the property’s driveway.
Bert appealed the decision almost immediately with the Zoning Board of Appeals, arguing that driveways did not constitute roads according to zoning regulations. The Zoning Board agreed, nullifying Dunn’s objection.
In response, the Oberlin News-Tribune, now a one-room, six-person operation but then a potent editorial force in the City of Oberlin, printed an op-ed piece opposing Bert’s construction project on the grounds that it “would violate the standards of modern city planning. The editors appealed to Gibson not to build it on his lot, but to find another site.”
With Dunn’s objection overturned and Bert slotted to have his apartment complex approved, three members of Oberlin College’s Planning Commission intervened. A local plumbing contractor, a member of Oberlin College’s Fine Arts Department, and a builder filed a joint motion through the City Council to reverse the reversal, so to speak, of the Zoning Board of Appeals.
In a 5-1 vote, with the only opposition coming from council member Harrold Gibson, Bert Gibson’s son, the City Council overturned the Zoning Board of Appeals’ decision. Following the decision, Dunn sent a formal “permit denial” to Bert, notifying him that “construction of an apartment on that site would run contrary to the basic aims and purposes of good planning.”
Determined, and likely embittered, by what he perceived to be a personal, rather than legal, opposition to his proposal, Bert filed suit first in the Lorain County Common Pleas Court and then in the District Court. In both cases, Bert’s suit was dismissed due the opinions of the judges that he had already “had adequate remedy at law by appeal.”
Over the months of overturnings, reversals, and eventual lawsuits from Bert’s initial application for a building permit to his filing with the Common Pleas and District Court, however, the Zoning Board negotiated a new building ordinance. The ordinance updated, among other things, the minimum square footage required by a room in an apartment complex to be 2,000 square foot each. It was exactly the move Dunn had wanted to make from the start and exactly the thing that allowed Bert to continue his fight.
While the regulation intended to establish legal opposition to the 807-square-foot Gibson suites and prevent similar proposals from occurring in the future, its announcement opened a legal avenue with which Bert could return to court. He filed a second appeal in the Court of Common Pleas on the merits of ex post facto law, arguing that he could not be denied a building permit based on the new zoning regulations when he had applied for his permit under the old square footage requirements. This time, the court granted his appeal.
The City Council then appealed the appeal in the District Court of Appeals, which upheld the City’s refusal to grant a permit to Gibson. Though this next part may seem to verge on fiction, according to records Bert went on to appeal the appeal of the appeal in the Ohio State Supreme Court on May 19, 1960. In Gibson v. the City of Oberlin, the court ruled in a 4-3 decision that Bert Gibson “could not be refused his permit.” Two years, five court dates, and innumerable trips around the legal merry-go-round later, Bert had won. He had spent $2,500 in legal fees (the modern equivalent of approximately $21,000) and outspent the City of Oberlin by more than $700 to get there, but on May 27, 1968 Dunn issued Bert his building permit.
The money, time, and persistence that went into Bert’s lawsuit against the City of Oberlin is what makes what happened next almost unbelievable: that in the end, Bert never constructed his apartment complex. Due to a series of illnesses, the farthest he got was taking down his hen house.
The Gibsons family and their more vocal supporters, in responding to accusations of racial discrimination in their business practices, have cited time and again their position as an economic and communal cornerstone of the City of Oberlin. They’ve done so in acquitting themselves of racial biases, they’ve done so in criticizing student protesters, and now they’ve done so in filing a lawsuit against Oberlin College and Dean of Students Meredith Raimondo. But Supreme Court Case No. 36245 tells a drastically different story about what the Gibsons family represents in Oberlin.
Though there are certainly risks in drawing parallels between the events of today and those of sixty years ago, Bert Gibson’s scrappy, fend-for-yourself attitude in the face of legal fees and opposition doesn’t signify that the Gibsons family represents Oberlin. It signifies that they represent themselves.
Let me be clear: the current Gibsons Brothers lawsuit is not a case of town versus gown, or even campus versus community. It’s a case in which two of Oberlin’s oldest and most politically powerful entities are going to head to head in a battle over property—or, perhaps more accurately speaking, over pride.
It’s sure to be a show, but it’s nothing Oberlin hasn’t seen before.
Contact editor-in-chief Luke Fortney at firstname.lastname@example.org.