Judge tentatively strikes most claims in Winston School suit against Del Mar

 Winston School
On Aug. 30, 2021 Winston School students walked down the block to a “Meet the Mayor” event after school was over to protest the lease termination.
(Luke Harold)

School plans to submit an amended complaint to the court by the end of March


A Superior Court judge tentatively struck down most of the causes of action in a lawsuit filed by The Winston School over the city of Del Mar’s decision last year to terminate the school’s lease.

The judge ruled that the school did not use the proper legal mechanism to make its case that the city, which serves as landlord of the Shores property where the school is located, erred in how it enforced the terms of the lease. The decision is now pending an amended complaint that the Winston School plans to file by the end of March, before a 20-day deadline set by the judge, and the case will continue.

For the record:

12:26 p.m. March 17, 2022The headline and text were updated to reflect that the judge’s ruling was tentative

Del Mar Mayor Dwight Worden said he was “pleased by the ruling,” which took place during a March 11 hearing at the Hall of Justice in downtown San Diego.

“I think the judge did the right thing, and I hope the rest of the case moves forward quickly,” Worden said.

The lawsuit by The Winston School, which serves about 100 special education students from grades 6-12, follows a two-year conflict with the city. As part of the lease, the school had to submit a complete redevelopment plan by Dec. 31, 2019. That deadline was extended multiple times, but city planners and council members have said the multiple plans submitted by the school throughout that timeframe did not meet the necessary criteria. School officials accused the city of “moving the goalpost.”

When the latest deadline passed last July, the Del Mar City Council voted to terminate the lease, giving the school until July 2023 to vacate. The school filed a lawsuit a few months later in October.

In January, the city filed a demurrer that asked the court to eliminate seven causes of action out of eight that the school included in its complaint. A demurrer is a legal argument to dismiss a cause of action based on lack of relevance.

The causes of action sought declaratory relief — which, if granted by the court, would have affirmed Winston’s interpretation of the terms of the lease on issues such as parking requirements and whether the COVID-19 pandemic should have invoked an “act of god” clause that protected the school’s lease.

But attorneys for the city, Lesley A. Riis and William C. Pate, argued that “a declaratory order cannot serve as a basis for the court to reinstate the lease.”

“The only way to accomplish that would be a suit for breach of contract to establish all the legal elements that the city breached the lease when it exercised its right to terminate,” they wrote to the court in advance of the hearing.

Judge Kenneth J. Medel sided mostly with the city during the hearing by striking six causes of action out of the seven mentioned in the city’s demurrer.

“Each of Winston’s six declaratory actions point to specific grounds for breach of contract,” Medel wrote in his ruling. “Declaratory relief is not the proper vehicle to determine whether parties performed under the terms of a terminated lease agreement.”

Attorneys representing The Winston School, Whitney Hodges and Paul Seeley, had argued before the hearing that the city of Del Mar has “exploited its dual role as landlord and regulator to obstruct the Winston School,” according to court documents.

“As it has continuously done throughout the past two years, the city is attempting to use its status as a public entity to take advantage of Winston,” Hodges and Seeley wrote.

Medel ruled in favor of the school on the final cause of action that the city challenged in its demurrer, which is about “reformation of contract.”

“The City contends that there is no basis to reform the terms of a lease which has allegedly been terminated,” Medel ruled. “To the contrary, if Winston prevails on a cause of action that would result in the invalidation of the City’s purported termination of the Lease, then the Lease remains in full force and effect.”

The Winston School provided an emailed statement emphasizing that “the judge’s ruling is not final.”

“This type of initial ruling seeking clarifications and amendments is not unusual at the beginning of a case and is not indicative of the final outcome, nor should the Court’s initial ruling be seen to reflect the judge’s view of the ultimate merits of the School’s case,” the statement read. “Furthermore, nothing in Friday’s ruling changes the School’s desire nor its assertion of its rights to develop the Shores Park as it has sought to do so for years.”