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A lawsuit against the city of Del Mar filed by the Winston School, pictured on the Del Mar Shores Park property along 9th Street, regarding the termination of their lease will go to a jury trial in March 2023. Photo by Laura Place
A lawsuit against the city of Del Mar filed by the Winston School, pictured on the Del Mar Shores Park property along 9th Street, regarding the termination of their lease will go to a jury trial in March 2023. Photo by Laura Place
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Trial date set for Winston School lawsuit against Del Mar over lease termination

DEL MAR — A March 2023 trial date has been set in The Winston School of San Diego’s lawsuit against the city of Del Mar alleging a bad faith termination of its lease at the Shores Park property last year.

Superior Court Judge Kenneth J. Medel confirmed the March 3 civil trial date during a July 1 case management conference, with a trial readiness conference also scheduled for Feb. 17. The trial is expected to last seven days.

The Winston School is a nonprofit special education school serving around 100 students annually, focusing on children with learning disabilities in grades 6-12. School officials filed a lawsuit against the city of Del Mar in October 2021 after the city provided a lease termination notice during the summer stating that the school failed to submit a proper redevelopment plan as required by the lease.

In the original complaint, Winston officials claimed the city refused to approve various iterations of the school’s redevelopment plans in an “intentionally arduous and grossly unfair process.” The complaint alleges that the city intentionally terminated the lease to develop affordable housing on-site, which city officials have denied.

“On July 1, the judge recognized the importance of this case by giving the case particular preference and prioritizing it in his calendar, scheduling it as soon as possible, which is March of 2023,” said Laura Cunitz, president of the Winston School board of directors, in an email to The Coast News.

“The Winston School is one of the oldest and largest nonprofits in Del Mar and has served students from all over San Diego County as a safe place for students with learning disabilities.  For nearly 35 years, Winston has been a respected and valued member of the community, and we will remain steadfast in our commitment to the mission of our students’ success on our Del Mar campus.”

The Winston School has been located at the Shores Park property since 1988. After the school helped raise funds for the city to buy the property from the Del Mar Union School District in 2007, school and city officials signed a 55-year lease in 2010.

Lease disagreements

The main issue forming the basis for the lawsuit is whether the city of Del Mar acted in bad faith by determining that Winston School’s plan to significantly remodel four of the onsite buildings did not satisfy their lease requirements for property improvements and chose to terminate the lease as a result.

Specifically, the lease required Winston School to submit a redevelopment application deemed “complete” by the city to meet the first milestone for redevelopment as required by the lease. The deadline for this milestone, initially set for December 2019, was pushed back during the COVID-19 pandemic to October 2020.

While city officials claim the school’s plans were lacking, Winston School officials say they submitted over 13 plans to the city for the remodel between 2019 and 2021 to meet new requirements constantly introduced by the city throughout the process.

The complaint, filed by The Winston School, alleges the city intentionally terminated the school's lease to develop affordable housing on the site. Photo by Laura Place
The Winston School alleges the city terminated its lease to develop affordable housing on the site. Photo by Laura Place

These included demands for a parking study and detailed construction plans, which Winston officials say should have been required not during the application process but later on during the permit application.

Winston School’s deadline to correct deficiencies identified by the city, referred to as a 90-day cure period, was ultimately extended to July 2021. Despite the submittal of additional plans by Winston, the city determined that the school had failed to meet the requirements for the application.

Lease terms stated that the city could terminate the lease or shorten its term to 40 years if the school failed to correct redevelopment plan deficiencies by the end of the 90-day cure period. The Del Mar City Council unanimously voted at a subsequent August 2021 meeting to terminate the lease, giving the Winston School until July 1, 2023, to vacate the property, demolish the current buildings and restore the site to a graded lot.

Winston School filed its lawsuit shortly after in October 2021.

Court moves

Before the setting of a trial date, the most recent action in the case occurred on March 11, when Judge Medel issued a temporary ruling granting the city of Del Mar’s request for a demurrer related to Winston School’s requests for declaratory relief related to the lease.

A demurrer, also known as a motion to dismiss, is a request for the court to dismiss causes for action in a claim. In this case, Medel tentatively ruled that six of the eight causes for action within the school’s complaint “point to specific grounds for breach of contract” rather than declaratory relief, which provides a statement of a parties’ rights from the court.

“Declaratory relief is not the proper vehicle to determine whether the parties performed under the terms of a terminated lease agreement,” Medel stated in the ruling.

Another demurrer hearing will take place on Aug. 19. Cunitz emphasized that Winston School’s causes of action are still very much active in the meantime.

“At the time, it is essential to understand that none of Winston’s causes of action have been dismissed. The judge requested more information be added to the complaint, which the School has provided. Winston has not lost anything; the City has not gained anything. The judge will make a decision on the amended complaint in August,” Cunitz said.

Leslie Devaney, attorney for the city of Del Mar, said plans for the trial would not be impacted even if Medel rules in favor of the city’s demurrer motion in August.

“The City’s demurrers (there have been two) relate only to Winston’s declaratory relief causes of action and not its contract theories. Whatever the Court decides on the demurrer, trial dates set earlier this month would not be impacted, and the matter will move forward,” Devaney said.