August 22, 2012
The story behind the Hotel Shangri-La anti-Semitism trial
It was late in the afternoon on Aug. 15, a Wednesday, when the jury delivered its verdict to a Santa Monica courtroom. The discrimination case that had been brought against the oceanfront boutique Hotel Shangri-La by a group of young Jews had been going on for nearly four weeks, and the jurors had taken five full days for their deliberations. It was so late in the day, in fact, that James Turken, the plaintiffs’ lead attorney, and some of his clients who were still standing by, had to be let into the locked courthouse building in Santa Monica by a security guard.
And even though Turken was already hopeful that the jury’s prolonged deliberation might mean good news for his side, it wasn’t until the attorney took a seat in the courtroom that he found out for certain just how overwhelming their victory was.
A court employee had already begun reading the jury’s verdicts for each of the 18 individual plaintiffs, and, with each additional decision, the message became increasingly clear: The jury firmly believed Turken’s clients’ allegations that the hotel and its president, CEO and part-owner, Tehmina Adaya, had illegally discriminated against them, solely because they were Jewish.
The total amount in damages and statutory payments awarded to the plaintiffs on that day added up to about $1.2 million. On the following day, because the jury found the defendants had acted with “malice, oppression and fraud” against most of the plaintiffs, they would also impose a fine on Adaya and the hotel of $440,000 in punitive damages — bringing the size of the total penalties to more than $1.6 million.
But Turken was already elated on Wednesday.
“Home run,” Turken whispered to this reporter. “Home run.”
The group had made arrangements for the event through an event promoter, Scott Paletz, who had been bringing people to the hotel’s rooftop restaurant since March of that year. Starting at 11 a.m. on that Sunday, the FIDF group had been allotted a cordoned-off area on the pool’s deck, where members had installed a pair of banners announcing their presence. At a check-in table in the courtyard, a blue shirt was displayed with the word “Legacy,” the FIDF program the group was fundraising for that day. It’s a program that brings the young relatives of Israeli soldiers killed in the line of duty for a month-long stay at a summer camp in the U.S.
Adaya, 48, a Pakistani-born Muslim, was also at the pool that day, there to watch the World Cup final game in her cabana. After examining some of the FIDF group’s promotional literature, Adaya instructed members of her staff to take a number of actions against the group — including forcing the FIDF group to take down its banners, literature and other evidence of the organization’s presence. Many of the plaintiffs testified to seeing hotel security guards inform some of the FIDF guests, all easily identified by the blue promotional wristbands they were wearing, that they were not allowed to swim in the pool, or even dangle their feet into the water. The plaintiffs also alleged they heard from a hotel employee that Adaya had made comments about wanting to remove “the [expletive] Jews” from the hotel or the pool.
The hotel staff did not forcibly kick out the attendees of the FIDF party, but their actions, the plaintiffs said, ruined the party. Though it had been expected to last into the evening, the day ended when the plaintiffs left the hotel, around 5 p.m., according to testimony during the trial.
Many of the plaintiffs (most, but not all, of them Jews) also testified that they could not believe they were experiencing discrimination of this sort, at a chic hotel in Santa Monica, in 2010. But that’s precisely what they came to believe had happened, and they were able to convince the jury that Adaya and the hotel had violated the Unruh Civil Rights Act, a far-reaching California state law that outlaws discrimination on the basis of “sex, race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, disability, medical condition, marital status, or sexual orientation.”
The law entitles all Californians to “the full and equal accommodations, advantages, facilities, privileges, or services in all business establishments of every kind whatsoever,” and though it was adopted in 1959, a time when the most egregious forms of discrimination were directed against African Americans and other people of color, the statute clearly applies to religious groups, as well.
None of the legal experts interviewed for this article could point to a previous case in which the Unruh Act had been used to affirm the rights of Jews in the way that it was in the Shangri-La case, however. (One case, Sinai Memorial Chapel v. Dudler, had been brought in 1991 by a Jewish plaintiff and cited the Unruh Act, but in that instance the plaintiff was accusing other Jews of discriminating against her because she came from Russia.)
“I don’t think it makes new law, because it simply affirmed that there was a violation of existing law,” Turken said of the Shangri-La victory. “But do I think the case is important? Yeah, I think it’s important. My clients wanted the defendants held up to the world and found liable — and that happened.”
Built in 1939, the Art Deco Hotel Shangri-La is situated on the corner of Ocean and Arizona avenues, with a pool set in an interior courtyard, protected from any winds coming off the Pacific Ocean. The clean, white exterior of the 71-room facility glistens in the Southern California sunshine.
Tehmina Adaya’s father, Ahmad Adaya, purchased the hotel in 1983. Reading a March 2010 post on her blog, tamieadaya.com, one might imagine the Shangri-La to be the Santa Monica equivalent of the Chateau Marmont.
“I had the privilege of growing up in and around an LA institution that as Hollywood’s ocean front hotel had a long history of being a hideaway for high profile figures such as Marilyn Monroe, Bill Clinton, Tom Cruise, Diane Keaton, Madonna and Sean Penn,” Adaya wrote, not long after a $35-million renovation of the Shangri-La was completed in 2009.
But if the hotel does, in fact, aspire to a degree of exclusivity, some of the evidence presented in court appeared to belie that aim. When Adaya took the stand as a witness on Aug. 1, Turken asked her if a formal policy exists as to who is allowed to use the hotel’s pool. Adaya responded that a sign now stands on the pool deck informing visitors that only guests of the hotel and people who have rented cabanas are entitled to swim in the pool.
Asked whether such a sign was posted on the day of the FIDF event, however, Adaya responded, “I’m not sure.”
Attorneys defending Adaya and the Hotel Shangri-La maintained throughout the trial that the FIDF group had not made a formal arrangement with the hotel to hold its party there, and therefore the hotel and Adaya were justified in their actions.
Yet in cross-examination on the witness stand, Adaya retreated from some of her previous allegations about the plaintiffs. Adaya acknowledged that, contrary to the report prepared by the hotel’s head of security, the FIDF group was not behaving in a raucous manner. And when Turken asked Adaya about a lawsuit she had filed against his clients, in which she alleged that they had posted libelous and defamatory comments on various Web sites about her hotel following the ill-fated event, the hotel owner admitted that she had no evidence that it was Turken’s clients who posted the comments.
“But their friends did,” Adaya said.
Whether it was Adaya’s own apparent uncertainty about the Shangri-La’s policies — including those governing the relationship between the hotel and the separate company that in 2010 was running the hotel’s food and beverage concessions — that impacted the jury’s verdict, it is impossible to say. At the close of the trial, before jury deliberations, Adaya declined to speak to this reporter. Adaya also was not present in court when the verdict was announced, nor, despite a request by the court, did she appear to hear the additional penalties read on the following day. Follow-up requests for an interview with Adaya for this article, submitted to her representatives, were declined.
A number of members of the hotel staff were present in the courtroom representing her, accompanied by a recently hired communications counselor with a specialty in crisis communications. They spoke in her defense, saying she intends to appeal the ruling.
Ellen Adelman, chief business development officer at the Shangri-La for the past two years, said she had spoken to Adaya that morning, who, Adelman said, was “disappointed” with the verdict.
“I’ve worked for Tehmina Adaya for over two years, and I have always received the utmost respect from her,” Adelman, who is Jewish, said. Adelman described her boss as one of the “most open people I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with,” and said that the hotel employs staff from “over 12 countries” and welcomed guests from “over 21 different countries” in July.
Standing next to Adelman was Miles Lozano, the hotel’s director of public relations and marketing. Lozano, too, is Jewish, a fact he also made sure to note in a conversation during the morning recess.
“I went to Crossroads School with [Adaya’s] children, her children attended my bar mitzvah,” said Lozano, who declined to state his age but appeared young enough that his bar mitzvah might not be such a distant memory. “I’ve always known Tehmina Adaya to be amazingly open-minded as far as religion or anything like that.”
As for the plans to appeal the ruling, Adelman said that Adaya “firmly believes in the judicial system, and she will appeal this.” Defense attorney Philip Black, meanwhile, wrote in an e-mail to this reporter on the day punitive damages were assessed that he was “mystified, perplexed and extremely disappointed in the jury.”
“Appeal expected,” Black added.
While California law allows an absolute right to appeal, it’s hardly a given that such a pursuit in this case will be successful.
Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the University of California, Irvine, School of Law, explained that either side in a case can appeal a verdict on the basis of errors made by a judge during a trial with respect to admitting or barring certain evidence from consideration by the jury, however “a jury’s finding of facts can’t be overturned.”
In this case, Chemerinsky said, the single most influential fact considered by the jury may have been “the smoking gun of the statements” alleged to have been made by Adaya.
A former employee at the hotel testified in a deposition to having been told by Adaya to “Get these [expletive] Jews out of my hotel.” Although the former employee, Nathan Codrey, did not appear in person to testify at trial, and Adaya denied having made the statements in question, Codrey’s deposition, which was read in court, is likely to have helped cement the jury’s impression of the defendant as someone acting on prejudicial impulses.
After the trial, some of the jurors spoke with Turken — which is common after a trial, he said — to tell him how they perceived the evidence.
“The ones I spoke to thought there wasn’t any question that the [FIDF] group was supposed to be there, and there wasn’t any question for them that Ms. Adaya had done it all,” Turken said.
Joseph Grodin, a former associate justice of the California Supreme Court and professor emeritus at the University of California Hastings College of the Law, said that the Unruh Act, although originally adopted to deal with race discrimination in California, has always offered protection from religious discrimination and has been expanded since its adoption in 1959 to protect Californians from being discriminated against for their sex or sexual orientation as well.
“As I understand it,” Grodin said, “this is a fairly straightforward claim of the Unruh Act, that Jews were being discriminated against because they were Jews.”
As far as lawyers go, Turken might seem a somewhat unlikely crusader for civil rights.
An experienced litigator, Turken mostly defends corporations. But for reasons that are not entirely clear, the organizations that typically speak up when the rights of Jews are violated did not get involved in this matter, and when Turken first met the plaintiffs in this discrimination case, he liked them and wanted to help.
Turken grew up in Los Angeles, is a member of Sinai Temple and has been a longtime supporter of the American Technion Society; that he had some personal affinity for his clients isn’t wholly surprising.
“But the reason I got involved in this is about a group of young people that experienced egregious discrimination,” Turken said, “and refused to put up with it.”
Turken runs the three California offices for the national law firm of Dickstein Shapiro, and the firm, he said, “was willing to make the commitment” to the case, taking it on on a contingency basis.
Less than a week after the end of the Shangri-La trial, though, Turken said he was scheduled to be back in court on a case more typical for him, involving a dispute between a company and its shareholders.
“We’re getting back to normal,” he said.
But for at least some of the plaintiffs, moving on isn’t so easy.
When the verdict came back, Scott Paletz, the owner of the event promotion business that made the initial connection between the FIDF group and the Shangri-La, who was also an individual plaintiff in the case, quickly called members of his family.
“They were happy that this was — at this point — over, and we had a favorable verdict,” he said. “And that I didn’t have to deal with it.”
But Paletz, whose company was awarded about $50,000 in the verdict and whose personal award came out to about $30,000 in damages, said his business had lost more money than those awards accounted for. Paletz said that prior to the FIDF event, he’d had an oral arrangement with the Shangri-La to promote parties at its pool for the whole summer of 2010 — an agreement that was terminated the day after the July 11 FIDF event.
“The jury did not understand my business’ damages,” Paletz said. “The hotel owed us quite a bit of money up until that date, not including the money that would have been made, even through the rest of the summer.”
Among the other individual plaintiffs, more than one used the word “relief” to describe their feelings after the verdict came back.
Jordan Freedman had tears in her eyes as the jury’s award in her case — $180,000, not including punitive damages — was read aloud. But being relieved not to have to go back to a courthouse isn’t the same as getting back to “normal.”
“The experience of being banished from a public place because of my religion will forever affect me,” Freedman wrote in a Facebook message to The Journal. “There are simply no words to describe the impact it has had on my life. The comfort I take from this ordeal is that people will continue to be held responsible for their words and actions, and hopefully more people will be spared from this kind of discrimination in the future. “
Lou Sokolovskiy, who said the experience at the Shangri-La reminded him of what it was like growing up as a Jew in the Soviet Union, said he was “very happy” to be able to put behind him the “long and quite emotionally draining process” of taking the case to trial. (His award, not including punitive damages, amounted to $115,000.)
There was intense media interest in the trial — Israeli press outlets, local American Jewish newspapers, and even The New York Times could not resist this made-for-a-headline story of a Muslim businesswoman who was found to have discriminated against the Jewish members of a pro-Israel group. Nevertheless, Sokolovskiy said he was surprised at just how many people in his community had paid attention to the proceedings.
“When I came to my shul [synagogue] this past Saturday morning,” Sokolovskiy said on the Monday after the trial ended, “I was greeted as a celebrity. Everybody came over and congratulated me. I got an aliyah just because we won this trial.
“I was shocked. Those two years — waiting, and being deposed and getting on the stand — was worthwhile,” Sokolovskiy added.