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Jewish plaintiffs win Hotel Shangri-La discrimination lawsuit

by Jonah Lowenfeld

August 15, 2012 | 8:38 pm

The Hotel Shangri-La in Santa Monica and its owner illegally discriminated against a group of young Jews, a jury in a California Superior Court found on Aug. 15.

The verdict in this closely watched case was read late Wednesday afternoon, at the end of the fifth full day of deliberation by the jury. The jury found that the hotel and its part-owner, Tehmina Adaya, had violated California state law when Adaya and members of her staff brought to an end a party that the plaintiffs had been holding at the hotel’s pool in July 2010.

The jury also decided that almost every one of the 18 individual plaintiffs had suffered negligent emotional distress and that most had also suffered intentionally inflicted emotional distress. They ordered Adaya and the hotel to pay damages and statutory penalties to each individual plaintiff, in differing amounts. For some individual plaintiffs, the sums added up to more than $100,000; the total amount awarded to the group was not announced in court, but appeared to be in excess of $1 million.

“The jury clearly felt that the defendants acted intentionally, with malice, and discriminated against this group of young Jews, and justice was done,” James Turken, the attorney representing the plaintiffs, said after the verdict was read.

[Related: Additional $440,000 in punitive damages imposed on Hotel Shangri-La]

Because the jury found that Adaya and the hotel had “acted with malice, oppression or fraud,” additional punitive damages may still be awarded to at least some of the individual plaintiffs, as well as to the one business entity on the plaintiffs’ side. The jury is scheduled to decide the amounts of punitive damages to award on Thursday.

The case centered on events that took place at the Hotel Shangri-La in July 2010 when the plaintiffs, most of them members of the Young Leadership Division of the local chapter of the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF), held a party at the hotel’s pool.

On that Sunday, after examining some of the FIDF group’s promotional literature, Adaya took a number of actions against the group – including forcing the FIDF group to take down the banners, literature and other evidence of its presence and directing hotel security guards to prevent members of the group from swimming in the pool. The plaintiffs also alleged that Adaya had made comments about wanting to remove “the [expletive] Jews” from the hotel or the pool.

Adaya was not present in court on Wednesday; when she took the stand, she denied having made any discriminatory statements. Her lawyers made the case that the plaintiffs, who had organized the pool party through an outside promoter who had been working with the management of the hotel, had not prearranged the event with the hotel.

The jury sided with the plaintiffs, finding that Adaya and the hotel in violation of the Unruh Civil Rights Act, which outlaws discrimination on the basis of “sex, race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, disability, medical condition, marital status, or sexual orientation,” and entitles all Californians to “the full and equal accommodations, advantages, facilities, privileges, or services in all business establishments of every kind whatsoever.”

Some of the plaintiffs had been present in court throughout the 18-day process of selecting a jury and hearing the case, and almost all were in court to hear the verdict. Jordan Freedman, who was awarded $80,000 in damages and $100,000 in statutory penalties by the jury, had tears in her eyes as she listened to the verdict. 

“I am incredibly proud of my group of clients,” Turken said. “They are charitable people, they were doing something good and never should have undergone what they did. And they stood up, and they fought back and they won.”

Adaya’s attorney, Philip Black, was in court when the verdict was read. He declined to comment.

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