Torres defamation suit tossed
September 10, 2013
Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo (CAPSLO) director of homeless services Dee Torres has lost her slander case against Mike Brennler, a private investigator who had been working with CalCoastNews on news articles about abuses of the homeless.
San Luis Obispo Superior Court Judge Barry LaBarbera ruled Friday, dismissing Torres’ case and noting that Torres is a public figure. Also, he wrote, it did not appear likely that Torres would be able to prove her case.
“There is no evidence that the defendant fabricated the story, or that the statements were so inherently improbable that there was an obvious reason to doubt the veracity,” LaBarbera says in the ruling. “Defendant meets his burden to establish his alleged activity arises under his constitutionally protected free speech.”
CalCoastNews had been publishing an ongoing series of articles on abuses of the homeless, and reported that Torres had taken gift cards donated for the homeless and used them for herself, her family, and others.
Brennler was investigating those reports when Torres sued him for slander, asserting that he defamed her by telling one of her ex-husbands that she stole money from clients at the homeless shelter.
Included in Torres’ filing were “Does 1-100… radio broadcasting stations and individuals and individuals associated with those stations,” “online news agencies in San Luis Obispo County” and sources who may have talked to reporters.
Brennler filed an anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit To Prevent Public Participation) motion to dismiss Torres’ lawsuit, citing the California law protecting against lawsuits intended to prevent people from discussing matters of public interest.
In addition to the slander suit, CAPSLO threatened to sue whistle-blowers who revealed specific abuses of homeless people.
Torres’ attorney Roy Ogden argued his client was not a public figure; that Brennler made the statement with malice; and that one of the people interviewed was lying in order to hurt Torres, the source’s former girlfriend.
Stew Jenkins, Brennler’s attorney, argued that Torres was unable to prove malice or that the allegations of theft were untrue. In order for a public figure to prove slander, the alleged statement must be provably false and said with actual malice. In addition, Jenkins noted the scores of sources made allegations of misappropriation of funds or misdeeds against the homeless.
Part of LaBarbera’s ruling suggested that reporting on the issues was a public service. The judge concluded that the management of homeless services by CAPSLO can broadly be construed as an issue of public interest.”
If an anti-SLAPP motion is successful, the plaintiff is generally ordered to pay the defendant’s attorney’s charges and court fees.
“Defendant shall prepare, file, and serve a proposed judgment in his favor,” LaBarbera wrote in his ruling.