'Queen of Versailles' Filmmaker Beats Westgate's Defamation Claim (Exclusive)
Time-share baron David Siegel claimed he was defamed by a description of the movie as a "rags-to-riches-to-rags story" even though he used those words in the acclaimed documentary.
Lauren Greenfield has scored the big victory that likely ends David Siegel's attempt to punish the filmmaker over The Queen of Versailles. This week, an arbitrator at the Independent Film and Television Alliance ruled that the documentary about the time-share baron wasn't defamatory.
"Having viewed the supposedly egregious portions of the Motion Picture numerous times, [the Arbitrator] simply does not find that any of the content of the Motion Picture was false," rules arbitrator Roy Rifkin.
The lawsuit was brought by Siegel's Westgate Resorts on the precipices of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. The film focuses on Siegel's commissioning of a $75 million Florida mansion for himself before the economy went south. Siegel wasn't happy that the press release for the film described a "timeshare tycoon and his socialite wife" being "forced to sell off the unfinished property or face economic truth" and a "rags-to-riches-to-rags story."
Knowing that a filmmaker-friendly forum like IFTA wouldn't be too kind to him, Siegel fought like hell to keep his defamation claims in federal court, but last year, a judge ruled Greenfield attained a proper release from those at Westgate Resorts who participated in the filming. As such, the matter went to arbitration.
Greenfield spent two years making the lauded documentary that was distributed in theaters by Magnolia Films and televised by Bravo and CNBC. During this time, Siegel and his family made themselves available for extensive interviews and said things they might be regretting.
"There is nothing taken away by the viewer of the Motion Picture that is inconsistent with the fundamental reality that the global recession created a crisis for Westgate causing it to have to reluctantly give up its interest in PH Towers," writes the arbitrator in his ruling. "To a great extent this is derived from the words of David, Jackie, and Richard Siegel themselves. Perhaps the clearest example of this is David referring to the story being told as a 'rags-to-riches-to-rags story.' "
The arbitrator adds that Westgate has failed to show how it was damaged from the documentary. Further, the arbitrator says the company "did not remotely establish the type of malice required for a defamation claim on behalf of a public figure."
Greenfield's attorney, Martin Garbus, didn't get everything he wanted in arbitration.
The respondents demanded more than $1 million in attorney fees and in response, the arbitrator calls into question the reasonableness of some of the fees claimed. It's also noted that the efforts to score legal fees involved "highly questionable tactics" including late evidence and use of some press coverage.
That said, arbitrator Rifkin uses his discretion to order Westgate to pay $750,000 in attorneys fees. The filmmaker also had errors and omission insurance that picked up some or all of the cost of the defense. In the end, it's clear she and producer Frank Evers came out ahead in the hard-fought battle.
UPDATE: There was another ruling in arbitration, though, where Siegel met with more success. Greenfield brought a counterclaim over the validity and enforceability of "Life Story Releases" and sought damages for Siegel entering into a reality television series contract with a third party. The arbitrator determined the Life Story Releases aren't valid, and although Siegel's appearance in the film may have been authorized by a separate Appearance Release, the arbitrator says the filmmaker hasn't proven damages with respect to Siegel's other entertainment project. Here's the ruling. Siegel's attorney believes the ruling will allow his client to pursue a TV show unencumbered by obligations to Greenfield.