Trials & Litigation

Ex-BigLaw partner's $10M suit links health club's racy marketing to alleged false claim of lewdness

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A former partner at Hughes Hubbard & Reed has filed a $10 million defamation suit against a Wall Street health club over an alleged false claim that the lawyer engaged in lewd conduct in the steam room.

Steven Hammond, the former partner, sued the Equinox fitness club and employee Michael Alexander, who had claimed that he saw Hammond masturbating. The New York Law Journal and the New York Post have coverage of the May 20 lawsuit, filed in New York state court.

Hammond was charged with public lewdness last summer in a case that generated local headlines. Hammond’s lawyer, Neal Brickman, told the New York Law Journal that prosecutors dropped the case after some “credibility issues” emerged.

The suit says Equinox tried to promote an image of its clubs as venues for immoral behavior in a racy marketing campaign that began more than a decade ago. The club’s “hyper-sexual branding and marketing strategy” fostered an environment that led to allegations of sexual misconduct and assault in “a multitude of lawsuits” against Equinox facilities, according to the suit.

One ad campaign had the tagline “Equinox Made Me Do It.” Several ads featured people “in various stages of undress, including an image that appears to depict five individuals laying on a bed engaging in what could only be described as an ‘orgy,’ ” the suit says.

In response to a rising tide of allegations of immoral conduct at the clubs, Equinox responded with a zero tolerance policy that afforded zero protection to its members’ rights, according to the suit.

When Alexander made the claim about Hammond in May of last year, the club terminated Hammond’s membership without further investigation, the suit says.

Alexander previously had been threatened with termination for failing to show up for work, and he “maliciously fabricated his defamatory allegation” against Hammond to improve his bargaining position, Hammond alleged.

Two days before Alexander made the false claim, the New York Post had published an article about a lawsuit claiming that Equinox ignored “reprehensible conduct” occurring in its steam rooms. Alexander joined that lawsuit at some point in 2018, according to Hammond’s suit.

After receiving the false allegation, the club decided to “sacrifice not only plaintiff’s membership but an unblemished 40-year professional reputation,” the suit alleges.

Hammond’s suit claims that he suffered “immense financial and emotional harm, as well as irreparable public embarrassment” after the allegation against him became public. His suit claims defamation, negligence, breach of contract, negligent hiring and supervision, and infliction of emotional distress.

An Equinox spokesperson said the company would vigorously defend itself in court. A lawyer for Alexander told the New York Law Journal that the suit was “baseless and merely an attempt to intimidate my client and deflect from his own actions.”

Hammond left Hughes Hubbard and moved to Portugal, where he is seeking work as an arbitrator.

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