'Queen of Versailles' Filmmaker Wins Key Ruling in Defamation Fight

"The Queen of Versailles"

"The Queen of Versailles" puts decadence on trial.

After spending two years making the lauded documentary The Queen of Versailles and then another year defending a lawsuit brought by the film's main subject, Lauren Greenfield scored a big legal victory in Florida federal court Thursday.

The film was a smash hit at Sundance last year, snapped up by Magnolia Films and the Bravo cable network and later nominated by the DGA for outstanding directorial achievement. It tells the story of David Siegel, a time-share baron who commissioned a $75 million Florida mansion for himself before the economy went south. Siegel wasn't particularly happy with the documentary described as a "rags-to-riches-to-rags story" -- seemingly based on his own words -- and sued, claiming that Greenfield had hurt the reputation of his Westgate Resorts business.

In December, U.S. District Court judge Anne Conway presided over an evidentiary hearing to decide the issue of whether Greenfield attained a proper release from the subjects. If so, the release stipulated that disputes would be handled by an arbitrator. The result of the testimony delivered Thursday amounts to a clear victory for Greenfield, with the judge disagreeing with Siegel's position, which she deemed to be "quite bizarre."

The ruling (read here) could go a long way toward ending the dispute.

Siegel's position on whether the case should be stayed pending arbitration was that the release form wasn't valid.

According to his side's legal briefs, the release was signed by his son, Richard Siegel, who was an important figure in the film and showed Greenfield around the sales and marketing operation of Westgate. The plaintiff argued that his son was just one of dozens who held the title of "vice president" and that he didn't work for Westgate Resorts but rather the legally distinct Westgate Marketing.

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Additionally, the plaintiff claimed that after his son signed the release, Greenfield had written "Westgate Resorts" besides the citation of "Company."

Greenfield countered that it was a "flat-out lie" that David Siegel didn't authorize the filming or the signing of arbitration clauses in the two years he spent cooperating with her.

Conway scored this one for Greenfield. She says the issue turns on whether Richard Siegel acted as Westgate Resort's agent for the purposes of filming those scenes where the time-share business is shown going through major troubles. She ruled that he had.

"Upon observing David Siegel's demeanor and listening to the substance of his testimony, the Court finds David Siegel's testimony to be inconsistent and incredible and thus lacking weight," the judge wrote in her ruling.

"Considering David Siegel described his management style as dictatorial and one ruled with an iron fist," the ruling continues, "it seems quite bizarre that for two years, without David Siegel's knowledge, the Defendants would visit Westgate Resorts' locations and would film meetings with directors, vice presidents and customers and interview his son Richard, who had an accompanying office in Orlando."

Conway also fond that Richard Siegel accepted his role as agent, that David had "complete control" over his son's actions, that the act of Richard signing was incidental to his filmmaking authority and that there was an agreement to arbitrate.

So what happens now?

Theoretically, the case could go to arbitration, but Greenfield's attorney, Lincoln Bandlow at Lathrop & Gage, says the arbitrator's job would be "easy" since "if the release is valid, then the waiver of defamation claims is valid."

If it heads to arbitration, it would be at the Independent Film and Television Alliance, a filmmaker-friendly forum. The ruling also could be appealed.

Siegel's attorney didn't respond to a request for comment.

Greenfield's lead attorney on the case was Martin Garbus at Eaton & Van Winkle.

E-mail: eriq.gardner@thr.com; Twitter: @eriqgardner