Equinox Sports Club (Photo: Shutterstock.com) Equinox Sports Club. Photo: Shutterstock.com

This story has been updated with comment from Equinox.

A former partner at Hughes Hubbard & Reed who was charged last year with masturbating in a steam room has sued Equinox and a former employee, claiming the gym chain violated its own policies and its racy marketing campaigns “emboldened” an employee to make a false misconduct allegation.

Steven Hammond was arrested and charged last year with public lewdness after Equinox staffer Michael Alexander accused him of masturbating in the steam room. Hammond’s lawyer said the criminal case against him has since been dismissed.

This week, Hammond brought a defamation lawsuit in Manhattan Supreme Court against Alexander and his former employer for more than $10 million for dragging his name through the mud based on what he said was weak evidence with no investigation.

Hammond’s suit also accuses the gym of negligence, saying it was foreseeable that false allegations like Alexander’s would result from its use of “hyper-sexualized” marketing campaigns that focus on fit, nearly naked people in sexually suggestive positions. Combined with other factors, like the gym’s failure to investigate Alexander’s claims before terminating Hammond’s membership, the ads allow Equinox to be held liable, Hammond argues.

Steven Hammond Steven Hammond

“Equinox sought to promote an image of its clubs as venues for immoral behavior,” the suit said. “By carelessly and intentionally pursuing its aggressive branding strategy, Equinox foreseeably encouraged third parties, including Alexander, to target Equinox and its members with the very kind of false allegation at the core of plaintiff’s injuries.”

Neal Brickman, who represents Hammond in the civil case, said his client beat the criminal charge after “some real credibility issues” surfaced involving Alexander, noting Manhattan prosecutors filed an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal and immediately dismissed the case. A spokeswoman for the Manhattan District Attorney’s office said the case is sealed and declined to comment.

At the time of the charges, Hammond co-chaired Hughes Hubbard’s international practice from New York. He has since left the firm.

Brickman said Hammond had been contemplating retiring from Hughes Hubbard for some time before he was charged because of a desire to do more work as a neutral without having to worry about conflicts. Brickman said his client left the firm on his own terms and now lives in Portugal, where he has sought to continue working in international arbitration as a neutral.

Asked about the hypersexualized marketing claim, Brickman acknowledged there was no case law directly on point. “Under a negligence theory, I wouldn’t say there’s a fact pattern that is identical to this, but there are negligence cases that are analogous,” he said.

In addition to seeking damages for defamation and negligence, Hammond also brought claims against Equinox for breach of its membership agreement, for negligent hiring, retention and supervision and against all defendants for negligent infliction of emotional distress.

An Equinox spokeswoman said in a statement, that the firm doesn’t comment on litigation, but would “vigorously defend” itself in court. “Equinox believes that this is a dispute purely between two individuals, Mr. Hammond and Mr. Alexander,” the spokeswoman said.

Hammond’s suit comes about a week after Alexander sued him for false imprisonment, assault and battery tied to the alleged steam room incident last year.

Marc Held of Held & Hines, a lawyer for Alexander, mentioned the suit in a statement to ALM. Held said Hammond has threatened his client and called the lawyer’s own suit “baseless and merely an attempt to intimidate my client and deflect from his own actions.”