Riki Neice and fiance Cody Hosier of Arroyo Grande
Riki Neice, seen with fiance Cody Hosier, has filed a lawsuit against their Paso Robles wedding venue seeking to get her full deposit refunded since the event can’t take place because of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Courtesy photo)

When Riki Neice ran across the website for Home Sweet Home Cottage & Ranch in Paso Robles, she knew it was where she was going to get married.

“They kind of had a little bit of everything,” Neice recalled. “When my fiance saw it, he liked it, too — which is like half the battle.”

Sure it would be expensive — wedding venues often are in the popular and scenic Paso Robles wine country. But with a little help from her mom and dad, plus “all of her savings,” they could make it work, Neice said.

After all, it’s paying for a dream.

“We were going to figure out a way to make it work,” Neice said.

Spoiler alert: It did not work.

As Neice’s original September wedding date approaches, she and her fiance, Cody Hosier, of Arroyo Grande, are no longer getting married at the Paso Robles venue they had their hearts set on, thanks in part to coronavirus restrictions limiting large gatherings such as weddings.

The cherry on top of this bitter-tasting, multi-tiered wedding cake? Neice says the venue has refused to refund the more than $15,000 they paid up front. Now, she is suing the Home Sweet Home owners for the full amount paid.

“Why am I having to pay you $15,000 to not have my dream wedding, and you just get to go on like nothing happened?” Neice told The Tribune in a phone interview Thursday. “Morally, it feels unjust.”

The co-owner of Home Sweet Home, Channon Clagg, called the lawsuit “baseless,” and said Neice knowingly signed a “non-cancellable, non-changeable and non-refundable” contract for a wedding package.

“No one could have anticipated the COVID-19 pandemic, and no one should benefit from it,” Clagg said in a statement emailed to The Tribune. “But no one should unreasonably pay for it either. From June 2019 until July 2020, my staff and I did everything in our power to make Ms. Neice’s wedding perfect, and incurred significant costs doing so. I should not have to pay for these costs.”

Wedding Lawsuits Abound During Coronavirus 

The lawsuit illustrates a quintessentially 2020 problem.

Since the coronavirus spread to the United States early this year and the ensuing restrictions shut down the entertainment and party-planning industries, numerous lawsuits have been filed by upset clients, demanding full refunds for events they could not hold because of the pandemic.

This often comes into direct conflict with those venues’ existing refund policies.

In April, a Sacramento mother-of-the-bride filed a lawsuit against her daughter’s wedding venue, demanding a full refund in light of the state’s shelter-at-home order prohibiting a spring wedding. The venue refused, saying it could offer only a change of date at no additional cost or a partial refund because costs had already been incurred.

An article in Texas Lawyer claimed that at least four wedding-refund lawsuits had been filed in the Texas area as of June 16. An article by Austin-based KXAN in July upped the estimate of wedding contract disputes in the state to at least 15.

Numerous online how-tos have also popped up in the wake of the pandemic, offering couples advice on how to seek refunds, what to look for in their contracts and how state courts interpret these types of lawsuits.

The general consensus? It really depends.

“This is a somewhat unprecedented situation,” Jonathan Dunitz, a lawyer at Verrill in Portland, Maine, said in an MSNBC article on the phenomenon back in March. “Even lawyers are scrambling to figure out what’s going to happen with contracts.”

‘What Happened?’ Bride Demands Full Refund

For Neice, the main issue comes down to the question of fairness.

Neice said paid Home Sweet Home $13,150 in February for her Sept. 19 wedding package to eliminate any of the stress that might come from spreading it out over a series of installments. That was separate from the $2,500 down payment she and her fiance had already put down in June 2019 when they booked the event.

Neice knew she was expecting a baby in August and wanted to make sure everything was planned and taken care of ahead of time, so she could maximize the amount of time spent with her new child, she said.

“I knew I wanted my focus on the child, not on the wedding,” she said. “I wanted to pay everything off. I didn’t want to be that bride. I didn’t want to be stressed out. The whole idea of that sounded stressful; I just wanted to be OK.”

At that time, talk was spreading about a new, highly contagious virus spreading across the world, but as yet it didn’t seem to be a big deal in the United States.

“Every indication was that it was going to be fine,” Neice said. “They were like, ‘Oh you have nothing to worry about. September will be in the clear.’”

Over the ensuing months, Neice watched the development of coronavirus restrictions with a wary eye, but she said all the communication from the venue’s organizers was positive. They even told her to go ahead and order her invitations, another $2,000 cost, Neice said.

That is, until July, when they approached Neice with some changes: She could have the venue for less time or she could have a ceremony, but no reception. Maybe fewer guests? How about a new date in 2021?

“First off, I’m devastated,” Neice said. “Two weeks ago, we were good. What happened?”

Neice said she and the venue went back and forth several times after that, debating options. After she decided she did not want to reschedule to a later date, or change the size of the wedding, they told her they could not offer her a full refund because some of the money had already been spent on nonrefundables, Neice said.

So she offered to “take the hit” on that amount, as well as the $2,500 deposit, Neice said. In return, she asked for the remaining $10,000 to be returned to her. They did not accept.

“It was hard enough to get in the first place — my whole entire savings is in that,” Neice said. “I just wanted to marry the love of my life, and now you’re doing this?”

During the next few weeks, the offers of money from the venue would get smaller and smaller, Neice said. That’s when the lawyers got involved, she said, and Neice decided to ask for the full amount of her package refunded.

“I want to be the nice person and be like ‘Oh, it’s COVID, you do what you have to do,’” she said. “But the fair thing to do here is to give me the rest back. I felt that was fair.”

Venue Owner Says She ‘Bent Over Backwards’ to Accomodate COVID-19 Changes

Clagg, the owner of Home Sweet Home, recounts a different version of events.

According to Clagg, she has hosted weddings and events at the Paso Robles property since 2006 with no issues.

“I pride myself on being fair, honest and going above and beyond to help my clients,” she said in a statement to The Tribune, noting her numerous five-star reviews on wedding websites like theknot.com and weddingwire.com.

Clagg said Neice’s lawsuit is “extremely misleading and omitted critical facts in order to bolster her claims and tarnish” the reputation of Clagg and her husband, Randall.

Clagg said Neice and her fiance signed a contract for a 200-person wedding package in June 2019, at a price of $15,650. The contract stipulated that it was non-cancellable, non-changeable and non-refundable, she said.

Clagg said she notified clients with late-summer weddings in July about Paso Robles’ existing coronavirus restrictions, which continued to limit large gatherings of more than 50 people.

She said though they had no way of knowing whether the restrictions would still be in place in August and September, the Claggs offered clients the option of rescheduling for a later date for no additional charge.

If they did not want to do that, they could have a smaller ceremony at a reduced package rate, Clagg said, or cancel outright and receive a refund “of their payment less any amounts that had already been put toward the wedding.”

“We were not contractually obligated to offer these options, but I wanted to go the extra mile to accommodate our clients,” Clagg wrote.

Clagg said she offered Neice a refund of more than $7,000 for canceling, but was turned down.

“Ms. Neice rejected these offers and refused to accept anything less than a complete refund, including of monies that I had already spent preparing for her wedding,” Clagg wrote. “Ms. Neice’s demand that she receive all of her money back — and not one penny less — fails to take into account the fact that very little of the package cost is profit.”

Clagg said the money typically goes to paying a wedding consultant and planner who will work with the couple as well as going to “maintain the venue in preparation for the event.”

“In other words, if I gave Ms. Neice a full refund (even though I have no obligation to do so), especially two months before the wedding date, I would be out-of-pocket thousands of dollars for the costs incurred on her behalf,” Clagg wrote.

“I bent over backwards to accommodate Ms. Neice, but she refused to discuss any accommodation or compromise, and instead filed a meritless lawsuit. I sincerely wish that Ms. Neice and I could have resolved this matter outside of the courtroom, but she rebuffed every attempt I made to compromise. Consequently, I have no choice but to spend money on attorneys fighting a baseless lawsuit that we are certain to win.”

Legal Fight Will Go on After Wedding

Neice and the Claggs are scheduled for a case management conference in December.

Neice’s lawyer said that ultimately he thinks things will side in her favor and noted that he has been in contact with other Home Sweet Home clients with similar stories.

“I don’t know how they can defend it,” attorney Dennis Balsamo told The Tribune in a phone interview Wednesday. “I really don’t know. This is so wrong.”

As for Neice, she and her fiance are still planning a wedding for Sept. 19, albeit a much smaller one, in the backyard under a tree.

With a new baby and homeschooling her 5-year-old son, Neice said the stress of a lawsuit has been an additional weight during an already difficult time.

“I’m not ending up with my dream wedding, but at the end of the day I’m trying to be OK with it,” she said. “I get that it’s crappy for them — it’s crappy for all of us. But can’t we share some of the crap?”

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