Wedding Venue Fined $305K For Taking Deposits For Events It Couldn’t Possibly Host

Imagine you’re about to get married and then find out that the venue you booked for your reception is not only closed, but that the venue operators knew it be shutting down and took your deposit anyway. This is exactly what happened to nearly 60 people who were tricked into making deposits with a Seattle gallery for weddings and other events that could never have possibly been held there.

Earlier this week, Washington state attorney general Bob Ferguson announced that his office had been granted a $304,995 default judgment [PDF] against the former operators of EM Fine Art, a gallery that closed without advance notice in June 2014.

The gallery’s operators sent out e-mails to customers who had already booked the venue, breaking the bad news to them that (A) their event could not be held there, and (B) there would be no refunds of deposits.

That might all be understandable if the venue had truly been hit out of nowhere with the news that it had to shut down. In fact, one of the e-mails sent to reservation-holders explained that the gallery had been destroyed in a fire.

The fire explanation was bogus, and so was any statement that the owners didn’t know a shutdown was pending.

According to Ferguson’s office, the gallery operators began receiving notices, from their landlord and the city, in Nov. 2013 about various violations of local land use ordinances.

Then in mid-April 2014, the landlord said their lease would be terminated on May 21, 2014, meaning that was the last day they could possibly play host to any events.

And yet, up until the day the venue declared its own demise, it was still allowing customers to make reservations and pay deposits.

In Feb. 2015, the attorney general’s office sued the gallery operators, who never showed up to defend themselves in court or properly respond to the lawsuit. They have tried to argue that they never received any notice of the suit because they never check the mailbox to which it was sent, but Ferguson says his investigation found the couple is not only still checking that box, but that it did so 27 times in the month after the complaint was sent.

And so last week the King County Superior Court Commissioner granted the default judgment, which requires the gallery operators to repay a total of $50,000 to at least 59 customers bilked by EM, plus pay another $19,000 in costs and fees, and $236,000 in civil penalties.

One scammed customer, who lost her $700 deposit when the gallery shuttered, tells the Seattle Times that she’s not holding out much hope for getting that money back — but that wasn’t really her reason for telling Ferguson’s office about the scam.

“We filed our claims, not thinking anything would come of it,” she explains to the Seattle Times. “Seeing the judge ruled in our favor is vindication.”