Judge upholds Poetry lawsuit

A standoff between Caesars Palace and a celebrity-owned restaurant in the Forum Shops over allegations of racial discrimination will continue, so says a federal judge in Las Vegas.

On Thursday, U.S. District Judge James Mahan thwarted attempts by lawyers for Caesars Palace and Simon Property Group — owners of the Forum Shops — to dismiss a lawsuit by owners of Wolfgang Puck’s Chinois restaurant and Poetry nightclub.

The lawsuit accuses the hotel-casino and the mall of blocking access to Poetry, which operates in the same space as Chinois, because it attracts a mostly black clientele.

Poetry’s managing partner Mike Goodwin says Caesars and Simon are responsible for closing a gate that provides access to the mall from the casino during the club’s prime operating hours, forcing patrons to take a circuitous route into the mall past trash bins, via an unmarked door and through a dingy hallway.

“The four days we are open, they close that (gate),” Goodwin said. “That is the only dignified way to get into the Forum Shops.”

Forum Shops attorney Charles McRea says there’s no legitimate racial basis for the case. According to McRea, the mall simply sent letters to tenant Chinois stating the nightclub operation was in violation of a lease agreement.

“This is not supported by a shred of evidence,” McRea told the judge. “We have not barred anybody from doing business with them.”

Caesars attorney Steve Morris says his client shouldn’t be included in the allegations because the hotel-casino doesn’t have a direct, contractual relationship with the nightclub.

Morris went on to say Caesars blocked access to the mall from the casino late at night for security reasons and that casino operators would lift the gate if the nightclub would pay to monitor the area.

“The increased security was available and it could have been provided,” Morris said. “But (Poetry management) would be required to pay for it.”

Mahan sided with the nightclub operators in allowing the case to go forward, despite the motion to dismiss from the casino and mall owners’ lawyers.

He said Chinois and Poetry lawyers needed to only present, “plausible entitlement to relief,” in order for the case to proceed.

“I think you have done that,” he told the plaintiffs’ attorneys.

The dispute pitting Chinois and Poetry against Caesars and Simon began in the court system in October 2007, when Caesars and Simon sued Chinois in a Delaware court, accusing the restaurant of violating its lease by allowing the nightclub to operate.

Chinois and Poetry countered with a lawsuit in Nevada, which was kicked to the federal court system because it contained racial allegations related to federal equal rights laws.

The motion to dismiss was first scheduled for debate in October, and was postponed several times before finally being heard Thursday.

After the motion hearing, Goodwin said it was disingenuous for Caesars and Simon lawyers to suggest Poetry should foot the bill for more security.

Goodwin says he employs one security guard for every 35 to 40 patrons inside the 8,400-square-foot club and hires four Metropolitan Police Department officers to maintain order just outside the premises.

He also says the club, which cultivates an upscale customer base, is being blamed for rowdy behavior that occurs anywhere on Caesars’ property in cases in which the perpetrators are black.

In court documents Poetry cites an instance on Dec. 24, 2004, in which several black men were involved in an altercation at Caesars. Afterward, Caesars security sent video of the event to Poetry management, implying there was a connection between the club and the violence.

However, on the night of the fight Poetry was hosting an event for Jewish singles and there were no black patrons in the club.

A similar instance occurred in August 2007. After a fight in the casino involving two black men and a woman resulted in a shooting, Caesars security began blocking the main entrance to the Forum Shops late at night, forcing Poetry customers to make their way to the upscale club by going outside, past a trash bin area and through a barren hallway with rat traps.

Goodwin and Poetry’s lawyers argue the blockade was aimed at Poetry’s customers even though video of the shooting indicated the people involved wouldn’t have met the club’s dress code requirements, meaning they were not likely to be Poetry customers.

“They want to blame every problem they have on Poetry,” Poetry lawyer Harold Gewerter said.

Caesars and Simon lawyers, however, downplayed the racial allegations during the motion hearing.

They said they sent notices warning of potential eviction not because of Poetry’s clientele, but because they believed the relationship between the nightclub and Chinois was a violation of lease terms that prohibit subleases.

“There is nothing in those notices that alludes to race,” McRea said.

Contact reporter Benjamin Spillman at bspillman@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3861.

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