National Post (National Edition)
Judge casts away billionaire's playing of Gilligan's Island theme
Feuding tycoons still no closer to making peace
Bill Gross's enthusiasm for playing the theme to Gilligan's Island loudly outside his Southern California oceanfront home was muted by a judge who agreed with the Bond King's neighbour that it amounted to harassment and imposed strict limits on the billionaire.
Orange County Superior Court Judge Kimberly Knill ordered Gross, 76, and his partner, Amy Schwartz, to stop playing sitcom theme songs and other loud music when they aren't outdoors for three years and directed them to stay at least five yards away from their nextdoor neighbours in Laguna Beach.
Tech entrepreneur Mark Towfiq sought the restraining order to stop what he alleged was “a targeted campaign of harassment” and retaliation that began after he complained to city officials that the billionaire co-founder of Pacific Investment Management Co. had installed unsightly netting over a million-dollar sculpture in his yard without proper permits.
“The court finds the evidence demonstrates Gross and Schwartz wilfully playing music to annoy or harass their neighbours,” Knill said. “The evidence demonstrates on Aug. 23, 2020, Gross and Schwartz manually started the playlist over and over again,” the judge said, pointing out that one 17-minute video from a camera in Towfiq's property showed that Gilligan's Island played eight times, as did Green Acres.
Knill issued her ruling on the neighbours' duelling harassment complaints this week after holding one of the rare in-person trials in California during the coronavirus pandemic. The trial featured testimony over nine days, including from both men, their partners, a NASA scientist with expertise on sound and Laguna Beach officials.
While the two men still have separate lawsuits pending against each for monetary damages, the judge said she'd consider Towfiq's request that Gross pay his legal fees in this case.
The judge threw out Gross's request that Towfiq be ordered to stop taking videos and pictures of the billionaire and Schwartz, saying Gross failed to prove he was harassed.
Despite the rulings, the two sides remain at odds.
Gross's lawyer, Jill Basinger, said the judge's decision was “disappointing,” and called Towfiq's case a “personal vendetta” over the billionaire's “art and music choices.”
“This order is not some sort of censure of either Bill Gross or Amy Schwartz,” she said in a statement. “This order merely directs them to continue doing what they already do: follow the law.” She also repeated Gross's claims that his neighbour had “weaponized” police complaints to “bully” Schwartz and Gross.
Chase Scolnick, Towfiq's lawyer, called the decision “a huge loss” for Gross and a “long overdue victory” for his clients. He said they had been living a “nightmare” and Towfiq looks forward to a jury hearing his complaints at the civil trial.
“We are pleased that Judge Knill found Mr. Gross and Ms. Schwartz relentlessly harassed our clients with music constantly blasted at their home as retaliation for filing a complaint about Gross's illegal art installation, and that she expressly disbelieved Gross and Schwartz's false and defamatory statements to the contrary,” Scolnick said. “No amount of money or PR spin can hide the truth here.”
The neighbours both have modernist, multimillion-dollar trophy homes perched on a Laguna Beach bluff overlooking the Pacific. Gross, known as the Bond King for having run the $270-billion Total Return Fund at Pimco, also has a home in nearby Newport Beach.
That's where he was when he became captivated by the Gilligan's Island theme, he said. Gross told the judge he found an episode of the sitcom on YouTube and noticed that the opening sequence, showing the S.S. Minnow leaving a harbour, was filmed right outside his home. He said he called Schwartz over and their love of the song about seven stranded castaways featured in the 1960s sitcom began.
“Over time, we've learned lyrics and we act together with hands and pointing. It's like a little play,” he testified. “We play it because it makes us real happy. Half the time we start dancing and when we finish we're looking at each other like it's a good time.”
But Towfiq described the music as a weapon of “revenge.” He said Gross and Schwartz began blasting the theme, as well as those of other TV shows, rap and Mariachi music in late July, soon after he asked the city to order Gross to remove protective netting suspended over a 22-foot-long blown glass sculpture by artist Dale Chihuly.
“There is no legitimate purpose to this behaviour,” Knill said.
“Despite the testimony of Gross and Schwartz that they like Gilligan's Island and it has special meaning to them, a reasonable person would suffer substantial emotional distress repeatedly being on the receiving end of unwanted repetitive music.”
The tech entrepreneur said his relationship with his neighbours had been amicable before he filed the complaint over the art.
He and his wife, Carol Nakahara, had been told Schwartz's 50th birthday bash would feature pop star Kenny Loggins playing at Gross's home and they said they enjoyed the show next door. Towfiq showed a text he sent Schwartz thanking her for the concert and to which she replied cordially, with a smiley face.
But it was another series of texts that helped sway the judge. Towfiq had asked Schwartz in a text to turn down the volume on the music at 11:45 p.m. on July 31. Gross responded by writing: “Peace on all fronts or we'll just have nightly concerts Big Boy.”
After the trial began, Gross proposed to settle the dispute, offering that both sides donate the money they were spending on litigation to charities. Towfiq rejected the offer, with his lawyer calling it an attempt by Gross “to buy his way out of accountability for his horrible behaviour.”
In their testimony, Gross and Schwartz denied playing music loudly, insisting they used a decibel meter to keep track of the volume. They claimed they'd been victims of “stalking” behaviour by Towfiq who incessantly photographed and recorded them.
They also said the dispute began months earlier when Towfiq allowed the crew of the HBO series Ballers, who were shooting an episode on his property, to block access to Gross's driveway.
Knill said Gross's texts corroborated Towfiq's account that the music was being played in retaliation for his complaint about the art installation.