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Judge lets Laguna cafe’s trespassing complaint against Muslim women go to trial

An Orange County Superior Court judge on Tuesday let stand a trespassing complaint lodged by Laguna Beach’s Urth Caffe against a group of Muslim women who allege they were ordered to leave the restaurant for being “visibly Muslim.”

Seven women filed a civil-rights lawsuit in May against Urth Caffe, claiming they had been discriminated against April 22 because they were wearing hijabs, traditional headscarves worn by some Muslim women.

The cafe’s owner has denied the allegation and in June filed a countersuit accusing the women of trespassing by refusing to leave.

Urth Caffe attorney David Yerushalmi said during a court appearance Tuesday that the women became rude and disrupted other patrons by videotaping them after learning about the cafe’s policy of not allowing customers to stay at their tables longer than 45 minutes during peak business times.

The women’s attorney Mohammad Tajsar filed a motion with the court claiming that the restaurant’s lawsuit was retaliation for the women’s public allegations of discrimination.

Judge John Gastelum ruled against that motion Tuesday, effectively allowing Urth Caffe’s claim against the women to move forward.

He set a trial date in both lawsuits for late August.

Tajsar’s motion was based on California’s anti-SLAPP statute, which allows a court to strike a complaint, known as a strategic lawsuit against public participation, that is intended to burden critics exercising their rights of petition or free speech with the cost of a legal defense until they abandon their criticism or opposition.

Gastelum wrote in his ruling that the trespassing claim is not based on the women’s verbal or online discussions but rather on their refusal to leave the cafe after they were asked.

"[The cafe’s] cause of action for trespass is not based on any act in furtherance of a person’s right of petition or free speech under the United States or California Constitution in connection with a public issue,” he wrote.

Tuesday’s hearing was the first time a judge has reviewed the case since both sides filed their complaints.

The women said they were ushered out of Urth Caffe by two police officers after a manager said they had violated the restaurant’s policy of allowing only a 45-minute stay during peak times.

According to the women’s lawsuit, they had gathered on a Friday night to meet friends over pizza, pecan pie and coffee when a manager interrupted them at about 8 p.m. to ask if they were waiting for more orders.

The manager returned before 8:15, saying he “expected a busy evening and needed to clear tables of patrons who had been seated for longer than 45 minutes,” according to the suit. The women said there were at least 20 empty tables around them.

Their lawsuit alleges they were removed because of their appearance, though it does not claim the manager made reference to that.

The removal “left us shaken, disrespected and shocked,” Soondus Ahmed, a software engineer, said in May. “We committed no crime, and it felt surreal that we were escorted out.”

During arguments in court Tuesday, Yerushalmi said the women were asked to leave after becoming rude and disrupting other customers, which could adversely affect the cafe’s business. He said they claimed discrimination only after they were asked to leave.

Tajsar argued that the trespassing complaint stemmed from the women’s protected speech.

“The only allegation of harm has to do with protected activity,” Tajsar said. “The women perceived the cafe’s conduct to be discriminatory, and they made it known.”

Gastelum ruled that the women “failed to meet their initial burden to demonstrate that their act underlying [the cafe’s] cause of action was an act in furtherance of right of petition or free speech.”

hannah.fry@latimes.com

Twitter: @HannahFryTCN


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