Fairmont Miramar Volleys Back In Budding Legal Battle With The Huntley

Friday, 26 Jul 2013, 8:09:00 AM

Parimal M. Rohit

If “Mean Girls 3” were ever produced, the bickering back and forth between Santa Monica’s two largest hotels would be the ideal cast members. Less than one week after the Huntley Hotel’s lawyers issued a demand letter to the Fairmont Miramar, the legal team behind  Ocean Avenue LLC (the group who owns the Miramar) responded with a five-page response.

What started with a flyer circulating around town alleging the Huntley spreading “misinformation” about the Miramar’s proposed revitalization project has turned into a budding legal battle.

On one side, lawyers for the Huntley accuse the Fairmont of restricting the former’s “legitimate free speech.” On the other side, lawyers for the Fairmont respond the hotel’s owners have the right to “set the record straight with respect to allegations contained in Huntley-disseminated materials.”

Penned by attorney Philip Recht of the law firm Mayer Brown, the July 22 letter says while the Huntley has every right to engage in the public process, it did so in a manner that was “critical of the Miramar project, false or misleading in numerous regards, and designed to inflame the Santa Monica community against the project.”

Recht also made a “you started it first” case against the Huntley, stating the hotel fired the first shot in the flyer campaign just before the City Council’s float up of the Miramar revitalization project in April 2012.

Specifically, Recht said the Huntley falsely accused the Miramar of being owned by a New York-based developer, proposing a Hollywood-style nightclub in its new iteration, endangering the health of the Moreton Bay Fig Tree, and failing to comply with Santa Monica’s Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE), among other things.

The letter also points out a second Huntley flyer was “equally false and inflammatory” in “alleging that ‘Michael Dell does not follow the rules.’”

Dell has an ownership stake in the Miramar.

Another issue raised in Recht’s letter was affordable housing. The Miramar’s revitalization plans include affordable housing units. Four points are made in Recht’s letter alleging the Huntley to be opposed to affordable housing units.

Recht questioned the Huntley’s role in the November 2012 election, as well.

“Public records indicate that the Huntley appeared to play a major role in soliciting campaign contributions to the independent expenditure committee Santa Monicans for Responsible Growth (‘SMRG’), while seeking to hide its own participation,” Recht wrote. “Overall, SMRG received and spent almost $100,000 for two candidates for Santa Monica City Council.”

City public records documents, the letter further alleged the Huntley directly donated $20,000 into the election one day prior to the polls opening.

Addressing the allegation that the Miramar’s used a “‘doctored-grainy photo’ of Mr. Sassounian” in the June 13 flyer distributed around Santa Monica, Recht stated it “was the best available photograph available on the Internet, and it comes directly from the ‘Images’ section on Google’s website.”

“There is nothing defamatory or improper about Ocean Avenue’s responses to the Huntley’s public criticism,” Recht stated. “The Huntley and its representatives have made themselves limited purpose public figures by engaging in the public debate and, as such, Ocean Avenue’s statements directed at their public participation are protected by the First Amendment.”

Recht continued neither Ocean Avenue nor the Miramar “are not subject to ordinary defamation standards absent a showing of ‘actual malice.’”

Responding to the suggestion by Huntley attorney Rick Zbur in his July 16 demand letter of legal proceedings against the Miramar, Recht seemed unfazed.

“Should the Huntley choose to initiate litigation over this matter, Ocean Avenue would welcome the opportunity to take document discovery and depositions in order to fully shed light on all of the matters discussed [in the response letter],” Recht stated.

Recht concluded his letter by stating he looks forward to engaging in “constructive dialogue” with the Huntley and pointed out Ocean Avenue has made significant changes to its revitalization plan based upon City Council feedback and input from community leaders and residents.

“Ocean Avenue is immensely proud of the current plan, which it believes responds in a compelling way to the goals and objectives of the LUCE and will contribute significant public benefits,” Recht stated. “Moreover, the final design of the project will be iconic and contribute in a meaningful way to the quality of architecture in the City.”

Last week, Zbur penned a demand letter to Ocean Avenue LLC on behalf of the Huntley, asking both parties to “cease the defamatory smear campaign against the Huntley … (and its) president and general manager, Mr. Sohrab Sassounian.”

The formal letter was issued in response to the creation of a website and issuance of two flyers by Ocean Avenue LLC alleging the Huntley Hotel engaged in “questionable political practices” and a smear campaign to prevent the Miramar’s planned renovation and expansion.

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