Dee Torres is public figure, judge says
August 23, 2013
Dee Torres is a public figure, San Luis Obispo Superior Court Judge Barry LaBarbera said Thursday, seriously undermining the homeless program official’s slander lawsuit against Atascadero private investigator Michael Brennler.
Torres, director of homeless services for Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo (CAPSLO), filed the action against Brennler in March, claiming he defamed her during a phone conversation with Torres’s former husband, Charles Barber. In that conversation, Torres asserted, Brennler harmed her by allegedly saying she stole money from homeless clients at the homeless shelter, as well as from former CAPSLO client Cliff Anderson.
Brennler vehemently denied he made any such comments.
When Torres’ lawyer, Roy Ogden, told the court he had not seen a portion of declarations filed by Brennler, LaBarbera delayed his final ruling to September 3.
During Thursday’s hearing, Ogden said CalCoastNews “published a lot of nasty things about my client.” At one point, he said CalCoastNews is “yellow journalism” and pointed to CCN reporter and co-founder Karen Velie in the courtroom, suggesting Brennler is “an affiliate” of the news service.
Following the hearing, Velie said Ogden’s claim of a “smear campaign” was untrue.
“That’s a tactic used when people do not want to address the real issues,” Velie said.
LeBarbera said in a tentative ruling issued Wednesday that Torres had not proven that Brennler acted with malice. A public figure is faced with a very high bar in order to prove actual malice. The judge also said the question of homeless services and protection of those in CAPSLO programs is a matter of public interest. Ogden argued to the contrary, saying the news service simply created “a public curiosity” around the issue.
When Torres filed the lawsuit, Brennler was voluntarily working with CalCoastNews on an investigation into treatment of homeless persons in San Luis Obispo County. The news website has published numerous articles this year reporting on financial and management improprieties by Torres and other management-level individuals at CAPSLO.
Responding to her lawsuit, Brennler’s attorney, Stewart Jenkins, filed an anti-SLAPP motion, used to strike a lawsuit filed to silence criticism.
Jenkins said any phone call made by Brennler would have been for the purpose of further investigation of allegations against Torres made by a host of other people.
In requesting the continuation, Ogden claimed he did not receive a declaration by Torres’ ex-boyfriend Ralph Almiorl, who alleges Torres misused gift cards donated to the homeless.
Jenkins said he served the declaration on August 15 and has proof of service.
If LaBarbera stays with his tentative ruling, the anti-SLAPP motion will succeed and Torres will have to pay Brennler’s legal fees.