Jewish Journal

Trial begins in FIDF v. Hotel Shangri-La discrimination case

by Jonah Lowenfeld

July 27, 2012 | 12:29 am

The Hotel Shangri-La. Photo by Jonah Lowenfeld

A case of discrimination brought by a group of young Los Angeles Jews affiliated with a pro-Israel group against the Muslim owner of a hotel in Santa Monica began in Los Angeles Superior Court in Santa Monica on July 26.

The plaintiffs, including more than a dozen young Jewish Angelenos affiliated with the nonprofit Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF), have accused Tehmina Adaya, the owner of the Hotel Shangri-La in Santa Monica, of discriminating against them when, on July 11, 2010, they say she brought to an abrupt end a party that the plaintiffs say had been approved by members of the hotel’s management in advance.

In his opening statement, the plaintiffs’ attorney James H. Turken outlined the case that he will present over the course of a jury trial, set to continue over the coming two weeks.

Beginning on Friday morning, when he calls his first witnesses, Turken will make the case that the event at the Shangri-La’s pool had been arranged in advance with the hotel’s management, that Adaya – who happened to be watching the World Cup Finals that Sunday in a private cabana by the pool – didn’t know that the event taking place was organized by a Jewish group, and that when Adaya found out about this, she reacted in an “exceedingly” angry way.

The plaintiffs, who on Thursday occupied many of the seats in the visitors’ section of the courtroom, have charged Adaya and the hotel with multiple violations, including discrimination, intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress, and a handful of business-related violations, and are seeking compensatory and punitive damages that could amount to millions of dollars.

But if Turken, in his opening statement, called what took place at the Shangri-La pool on that Sunday in 2010, “egregious discrimination against a group of young people,” defense attorney John S. Levitt told the jury that the FIDF pool party had not been prearranged with the staff members at the hotel responsible for booking events of this type.

“This was not a case of discrimination,” Levitt told the jurors. What the evidence would show, Levitt said, is that while members of the FIDF’s Young Leadership division thought that they had arranged for their event to take place at the Shangri-La, no agreement had been made with the hotel’s management.

The promoter responsible for that Sunday’s event—who is one of the plaintiffs in the case against Adaya and the Shangri-La – had, in Levitt’s words, “sold [the FIDF members] a bill of goods.”

The two opening statements, both delivered within about an hour, came after a jury-selection process that had taken the better part of the prior three days. Nine women and seven men – 12 jurors and four alternates – listened and took notes as the attorneys laid out their cases.

From those statements, it would appear that much of the evidence to be presented in this civil lawsuit will be rather mundane; emails between the people involved in planning this party are likely to be of great importance.

But the most attention-grabbing aspect of this case, by far, is the comment alleged to have been made by Adaya on July 11, 2010—something to the effect of, “Get these f***ing Jews out of my pool.”

Which helps to explain why Levitt began his opening statement by introducing Adaya to the jury as someone who has had many positive professional and personal interactions with Jews over the course of her life.

Adaya, who was present in court on Thursday and is expected to take the stand next week, was born in Pakistan. A Muslim, Adaya attended Catholic schools in Pakistan; after moving to the United States, she went to what was then called Westlake School for Girls—a school attended by many Jewish girls, Levitt said. As an undergraduate at UCLA, Levitt said that Adaya sought to join Alpha Epsilon Phi, “a predominantly – if not almost exclusively Jewish sorority.”

Adaya lived in the AEPhi house for three months, Levitt said, but later moved out to focus on her studies. “Not because of who the girls were and what their religious background was,” Levitt said.

But if her attorney’s goal is to present Adaya as someone who does not have “a discriminatory bone in her body,” the attorney representing the plaintiffs sought, from the very start of his opening statement, to paint a different picture. 

“Every case has a theme and this case is no different,” Turken told the jury, “and the theme here is: Just because you can’t believe it could happen here doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.”

The case resumes at 9:30 am on Friday.

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