Tuesday, November 12, 2013
C.A. Revives Suit Between Groups Seeking to Establish Local Casino
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
A dispute between rival factions of a Native American tribe seeking to establish the first full-fledged gaming casino in Los Angeles County presents issues that must be decided at trial, the Court of Appeal for this district ruled Friday.
Div. Five, in an opinion by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Sanjay T. Kumar, sitting on assignment, said a Los Angeles Superior Court judge erred in concluding that a purported settlement agreement resolved all issues between the factions. Kumar said the evidence presented in connection with a summary judgment motion was “rife with disputed issues of material fact” as to the validity of that settlement.
The dispute concerns the Gabrielino-Tongva Tribe, which Kumar explained is actually one of several associations of descendants of the indigenous Tongva people of the Los Angeles Basin, who became known as Gabrielinos through their association with the San Gabriel Mission.
In 2001, the Gabrielino-Tongva tribe hired a Santa Monica lawyer, Jonathan Stein, to help its bid to open a casino. Stein was appointed CEO of the tribe, and his law office was designated the tribe’s principal place of business.
Stein incorporated Santa Monica Development Company, which entered into an agreement with the tribe to develop the casino.
The tribe, however, lacked a council until October 2005, when six council members were elected. Samuel Dunlap was subsequently named chairman of the council.
Stein Out, Polanco In
A large investor was attracted to the deal, but disputes between Stein and the council led to the attorney resigning as CEO in 2006, and to the appointment of a former Democratic state senator from Los Angeles, Richard Polanco, being named as Stein’s replacement.
The tribe eventually sued Stein and Santa Monica Development. It alleged that Stein misrepresented his authority in an attempt to gain control of the casino project.
Stein and Santa Monica Development filed their own suit, on the same day. They named the tribe, the council members, the tribe’s general counsel, Polanco, and the outside investor as defendants. Stein claimed he was owed $2.7 million for his work on behalf of the tribe.
According to evidence presented with regard to summary judgment, Stein—without any authorization—organized a “financial oversight committee” made up of unsuccessful council candidates and threatened—but never launched—a campaign to recall the council members.
Various tribal members sent Stein preprinted “blue cards” demanding he return their “Member Records” to them, “immediately.” While this was going on, an entity named “Gabrielino-Tongva Tribe” was registered with the state as an unincorporated association, with Linda Candelaria, a member of the financial oversight committee, signing as the association’s representative and an employee of Stein listed as the agent for service of process.
Months later, the signers of the blue cards were informed by Stein’s employee, Barbara Garcia, that each of the blue cards constituted a “membership termination letter” and that they were no longer members of the tribe. The letters informing them of that assertion listed as tribal council members five people, including Candelaria, and identified Stein as CEO and Garcia as “Tribal Administrator” of the Gabrielino-Tongva Tribe.
The Dunlap and Candelaria groups each represented themselves to the outside world as the legitimate representatives of the tribe, and continued to litigate against each other, until October 2007, when the Candelaria faction entered into a purported settlement agreement.
The pact was signed by Candelaria on the tribe’s purported behalf. It provided that Stein and Santa Monica Development—who had entered into an agreement with the Candelaria faction months earlier acknowledging the tribe’s obligation to pay Stein the disputed $2.7 million—would pay the tribe $1,000 for a release of all claims.
Stein and his company then moved for dismissal of the parties’ respective lawsuits, pursuant to the settlement and based on Code of Civil Procedure Sec. 664.6. The Dunlap faction responded that it had no knowledge of the settlement agreement prior to the filing of the motion, which it opposed.
Judge Zaven Sinanian granted the motion with respect to the Candelaria faction’s suit, but said the Dunlap group could go forward with its suit. But he later granted summary judgment in favor of Stein and Santa Monica Development, finding that the settlement agreement “plainly calls for dismissal” of the suit filed against them.
That ruling was error, Kumar explained Friday, because the authority of Candelaria and her supporters to settle on behalf of the tribe was clearly in dispute.
The Dunlap faction, he explained, “did not dispute that the Candelaria Faction executed a settlement agreement purporting to settle...on behalf of the ‘Gabrielino-Tongva Tribe,” but disputed the Candelaria faction’s authority to do so by asserting in an amended pleading that “such settlement does not relate to the tribal organization that is a party to this lawsuit.” He also cited Stein’s deposition, in which he testified that Dunlap and his allied never submitted resignations from the council, nor were recalled.
If the Dunlap group constituted the lawful council, Kumar wrote, the Candelaria group could not have acted on behalf of the tribe in its capacity as plaintiff, as it purported to do.
Attorneys on appeal were Delia Ibarra of Lara & Ibarra for the Dunlap group and Stein on behalf of himself and the other defendants.
The case is Gabrielino-Tongva Tribe v. St. Monica Development, B238603.
Copyright 2013, Metropolitan News Company