Monday, May 20, 2002
Judge Denies Anti-SLAPP Motion by South Gate Recall Leaders, Grants Preliminary Injunction
By KIMBERLY EDDS, Staff Writer
Preliminary injunctions were issued Friday barring six South Gate residents from harassing their city’s council majority, after a Los Angeles Superior Court judge denied the residents’ motion to strike the injunction requests as “strategic lawsuits against public participation.”
Judge William J. Birney Jr. said he did not see how a lawyer could make up everything that was being alleged against the residents by Mayor Xochilt Ruvalcaba and Councilwoman Maria Benavides, and reasoned that since it would be impossible to fabricate everything, some of the allegations in the “extensive” declarations by the two women must be true.
“I can’t sit here in the face of the extensive declarations of the plaintiffs and reach a conclusion that none of it happened,” Birney said.
The six are actively involved in a recall campaign against Ruvalcaba, Benavides, one other council member and the city treasurer.
The declarations of Benavides and Ruvalcaba accuse the defendants—Sam and Marilyn Echols, Joseph Ruiz, Veronica Molina, Pascual Cervera and Shirley Bobrick—of a variety of harassing conduct from following them home from South Gate City Hall to forming a mob and poking and prodding Ruvalcaba to assaulting them with a stack of papers in a City Hall conference room.
Ruvalcaba requested preliminary injunctions against all six defendants. Benavides did not seek action against Molina and Cervera.
In making his ruling Birney noted that the declarations submitted by two police officers did not have as much bearing because “they were not present” at the events.
Outside of court, defendants’ attorney Stephen J. Kaufman objected to the judge’s decision to believe the declarations of the councilwomen over those of the police officers, including a declaration by Lt. Vince Avila that stated he was in attendance at some of the incidents.
Kaufman said he believed a hearing on the preliminary injunction was to follow a denial of the anti-SLAPP motion. But Birney declined to allow an evidentiary hearing, and told Kaufman to “file a paper” if he thought the ruling was wrong.
In a courtroom discussion, ordered off the court record by Birney, the judge also told Kaufman he didn’t see what would be accomplished in a separate hearing. Kaufman said he is considering his options and that the defendants will not give up on their efforts to oust Ruvalcaba, Benavides, Vice Mayor Raul Moriel and Treasurer Albert Robles from office.
“While we are disappointed with the denial of our anti-SLAPP motion, we are outraged that the judge somehow took it upon himself to enter an injunction against my clients without holding a hearing on evidence,” Kaufman, of Smith Kaufman LLP, said.
Bobrick, asked what she planned to do next, told the MetNews:
“Go home and keep fighting [with] the recall.”
The scope and duration of the preliminary injunctions are unclear, since they were not discussed at Friday’s proceeding.
The temporary restraining orders approved April 19 against the six defendants prevented the residents from coming within 50 yards of the officials. The defendants were allowed to attend the usually spirited City Council meetings.
Kaufman argued that clients’ statements were made in public and addressed public issues, and are constitutionally protected speech.
“We are talking about public figures who opened themselves up to public criticism,” he said.
Kaufman added that the city of South Gate is footing the bill for the councilwomen’s legal representation—something that could only be done if the councilwomen are acting in their official capacities.
James E. Blancarte, attorney for Benavides and Ruvalcaba, said he was not interested in keeping the defendants from expressing their opinions, but wanted to stop the physical abuse he said his clients have been suffering.
“I just want no hitting for my petitioners,” he said.
Following the court proceeding, Blancarte escorted Ruvalcaba from the courtroom and past the crowd of defendants and their supporters. Benavides was also escorted by an assistant past the crowd.
There was an additional sheriff’s deputy in the courtroom and, after the hearing, in the hallway leading to the courtroom elevators. Blancarte said they were indications of how seriously the court was taking the allegations.
“Before I got the temporary injunction, I was in fear for my life,” Ruvalcaba told the MetNews. “I’m still in fear of my life, but at least now I have something from the court for my protection.”
Benavides also expressed relief that the preliminary injunction was granted, adding that she has two small daughters she has to protect.
The two women claim they were forced to seek the injunction after their reports of the harassment incidents to the South Gate Police Department were ignored.
“I am the most ardent supporter of First Amendment rights of every person,” Ruvalcaba said. “But they don’t have a right to threaten me.”
The third member of the council majority, Vice Mayor Raul Moriel, did not seek restraining orders against any of the seven defendants. Ruvalcaba charged that she and Benavides were being singled out because they are “very young women in a leadership role.”
“They’re not threatening him because he’s a man,” Ruvalcaba said.
South Gate Police Department Det. Frank Rivera was also slapped with a temporary restraining order by Benavides and Ruvalcaba, but his anti-SLAPP motion is being heard separately from the other defendants because he was served later than the others, Rivera’s attorney, Robert Radeski, said.
Rivera, a 12-year veteran of the force, was assigned by the South Gate Police Officers’ Association to represent them in the recall effort, Radeski said.
If the court decides to issue a preliminary injunction against Rivera, he would lose his job because the conditions of the injunction would ban him from carrying a gun.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company