Neighbor Wins Restraining Order Against Laguna Beach Billionaire

Neighbor Wins Restraining Order Against Laguna Beach Billionaire
Laguna Beach billionaire Bill Gross, then a portfolio manager for the Janus Capital Group, listens during the Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills, Calif. on May 3, 2017. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)
City News Service

SANTA ANA, Calif. (CNS)—A judge granted a three-year restraining order on Dec. 23 to keep billionaire “bond king” Bill Gross from harassing his Laguna Beach neighbor by blasting backyard music, in the latest development in a dispute that erupted when the neighbor filed a complaint against Gross for erecting netting around an outdoor art installation that the neighbor said blocked his view.

Orange County Superior Court Judge Kimberly Knill cited the testimony of Gross’ own noise expert in supporting her opinion that the music, such as repeated playing of TV theme show songs like “Gilligan’s Island,” had a traumatizing impact on Mark Towfiq and his wife.

Knill noted that the testimony showed how the military and 7-Eleven convenience stores use music against adversaries and loiterers, respectively.

“While it was offered in favor of Gross and [his live-in girlfriend Amy Schwartz], it actually supports the case against them,” Knill said.

Towfiq and his wife “both suffered substantial stress,” the judge said, noting that the couple left their home one weekend to avoid the noise, then moved their bedroom to the other side of the house so they could get some sleep.

Towfiq “had difficulty focusing and working at home,” and he and his wife “lost sleep and appetite,” the judge said, adding “there is a reasonable probability the acts will continue in the future.”

Gross and Schwartz are prohibited from harassing their neighbors and must stay five yards from the couple. They are also prevented from playing outdoor music that violates the city’s ordinance and cannot have the backdoor speakers on when no one is in the yard.

Knill denied Gross’ restraining order request to prevent Towfiq from “peeping” on him and Schwartz.

The judge said Gross had failed to show that his claims of Towfiq obsessively “leering” at Schwartz rose to the level of harassment and that Gross did not raise the issue until after Towfiq filed the restraining order. The judge also said Gross called police just once on the issue.

Gross, 76, “testified he was the jealous type and didn’t want [Towfiq] leering while Schwartz was swimming alone,” Knill said. “But this behavior does not constitute harassment against Gross.”

Knill noted that Towfiq was advised by police to document the noise complaints, so he did with iPhone videos. None of Towfiq’s cameras on his property are pointed at Gross’ property and they are typical for security reasons, Knill said.

The judge said there was no “credible evidence Towfiq is dangerous.”

But the judge said Towfiq stepped over the line in one video in which he caught Gross in swimming attire in the backyard. If Towfiq’s aim was to document the noise, he could have easily achieved that by pointing the camera in his smart phone elsewhere, she said.

“This video unsettles the court,” Knill said.

The judge “cautioned” Towfiq that if it continued, it would provide fodder for a future restraining order request by Gross. As it stands, however, the single “disturbing incident” doesn’t amount to ongoing conduct justifying a restraining order, she said.

Gross issued a statement saying he and his “life partner” Amy Schwartz were “disappointed in the outcome, and will of course abide by the terms of the court’s decision. But to be clear, this case never should have gotten to this point. I have offered to settle this case many times in a way that would benefit everyone in the community except the lawyers, but was always rebuffed.

“Mr. Towfiq wanted his 15 minutes of fame but got it at the expense of the county, its courts, and those in need. Despite obtaining his requested restraining order, Mr. Towfiq has succeeded in nothing but wasting the county’s resources over seven weeks, in the middle of a major state, national and global pandemic.

“The judge should have shut down this case before it even started. The result maintains the status quo: don’t play loud music for the 15 days we are on the premises. We won’t play loud music because we never have. But we will continue to dance the night away, Gilligan’s Island forever. Happy holidays.”

Towfiq sued Gross and Schwartz, a former tennis pro, alleging that the two repeatedly and loudly play TV show theme music from such shows as “Gilligan’s Island,” “Green Acres,” and “M*A*S*H,” to harass him for filing a complaint against Gross for erecting a large net to protect a pricey outdoor art installation. Towfiq alleged that the net obscures his view.

Gross, founder of Pacific Investment Management Co. (PIMCO), filed a cross-complaint alleging Towfiq was “peeping” on his neighbor and his girlfriend, and harassing them with smart phone videos of the two.

“There is a pattern here. It is intentional and demonstrated by clear and convincing evidence,” Towfiq’s attorney, Chase Scolnick, argued last week.

The music the PIMCO founder and Schwartz played was “so loud it could drown out the noise of” the Pacific Coast Highway, Scolnick said, adding it was sometimes played when no one was at the Gross residence.

When Towfiq “wouldn’t back down” and began “documenting” the raucous music, which sometimes had the rapper 50 Cent on the playlist, Gross “became further enraged,” Scolnick said.

“He told Mr. Towfiq, ‘I’m going to sue you,”’ Scolnick said. “And that’s what he did.”

G. Jill Basinger, the attorney for Gross and Schwartz, disputed that the music was played “day in and day out.” She said there was only one time “Gilligan’s Island” was played past the city’s nightly curfew, and it was at 11 p.m.

“They like music, they play music,” Basinger said. “They dance to music. ... There is no evidence this music is loud.”

Basinger said that when a video of the music playing was shown in court during the hearings, “they had to crank it up” to be heard.

Basinger also denied that Gross and Schwartz were retaliating against Towfiq because of the complaint about the net.

“We believe it will permitted” by the city eventually soon, Basinger said. “The permitting is happening.”

Basinger argued that even if the judge granted the restraining order, then it “should go away” when the net is permitted.

“It’s not about ‘Gilligan’s Island’ or ‘Green Acres,”’ Basinger said. “They don’t want any music played in their yard, but, I’m sorry, that’s not what the law is, what the code is. ... They play music they like.”