Friday, December 5, 2008
C.A. Upholds Harassment Injunction Against Fullerton Lawyer
By SHERRI M. OKAMOTO, Staff Writer
The Fourth District Court of Appeal has upheld a restraining order against Fullerton attorney Paula Skerston, holding that Skerston engaged in harassing conduct by ignoring opposing counsel’s request that she not contact the defendant in her small claims suit and directly soliciting the defendant to appear on national television to resolve their dispute.
In an unpublished opinion Wednesday, Div. Three explained that the content of Skerston’s communications with Linda Sheehan was protected by the litigation privilege, but the manner in which the communications were made was not.
Sheehan had previously obtained a restraining order against Skerston in 2006, which expired in January 2007.
In July 2007, Skerston called Sheehan’s apartment manager and asked for Sheehan’s telephone number, the manager testified. The manager said that Skerston told her, “I am going to sue [Sheehan] because she says that she does cat rescue and finds stray cats homes but she actually kills them.”
Small Claims Action
Skerston, who was admitted to the State Bar in 1999, later filed a small claims action concerning a donation Skerston had made in support of Sheehan’s cat rescue efforts and Skerston’s belief Sheehan fraudulently held herself out as aiding animals, but killed them instead.
The attorney also managed to obtain Sheehan’s home telephone number and contacted Sheehan to advise her of the suit, the appeals court explained.
Sheehan’s attorney then wrote to Skerston, instructing her not to have any further direct contact with his client.
After receiving the communiqué from Sheehan’s attorney, Skerston testified, she was contacted by producers for the “Judge Judy” and “Judge Joe Brown” television shows, who proposed having Skerston dismiss her civil action in favor of arbitration on one of the shows.
Because she said she wanted her case on television, Skerston said she contacted Sheehan twice, leaving messages on Sheehan’s home telephone explaining the producers’ interest and the conditions if they agreed to go on either show. Sheehan refused to appear on the shows.
Defamation Suit Threatened
The day after the hearing on Skerston’s small claims action—in which Sheehan prevailed—Skerston wrote to Sheehan accusing Sheehan of defaming her during the hearing and threatening to file suit if Sheehan did not take corrective action.
Sheehan then filed a request for a new restraining order. She presented evidence that Skerston had followed her, hired a private investigator to gather information on her, and peered into her parked car. Sheehan also claimed that Skerston had visited her apartment complex and spoken to the manager and her neighbors, to whom Skerston had confided her suspicion that Sheehan was killing cats and kittens.
Orange Superior Court Judge Peter J. Polos granted the restraining order.
Skerston contended that her activities were protected by the litigation privilege and could not be enjoined.
Writing for the appellate court, Justice William W. Bedsworth explained that the litigation privilege applies to communications made in any judicial proceeding to achieve the objects of the litigation or communications relating to litigation contemplated in good faith and under serious consideration.
Although he acknowledged that Skerston’s calls about the television shows could be viewed as an offer of settlement, and that offers of settlement are protected by the privilege, Bedsworth reasoned that Skerston’s manner of extending the putative settlement offer went beyond the privilege.
“Having been warned by Sheehan’s attorney not to contact her, Skerston could easily have left the same messages with the attorney,” the justice wrote. By contacting Sheehan directly, Skerston “went beyond inquiring about alternate dispute resolution,” he said.
Litigation Privilege Inapplicable
Bedsworth also concluded that the litigation privilege did not apply to Skerston’s letter threatening to sue Sheehan for defamation. Because the letter was written after the action ended, it could not be protected as a communication in a judicial proceeding.
The justice added that because Sheehan’s allegedly defamatory statements were made during trial, they were protected by the litigation privilege.
“Without showing at least a possibility Sheehan’s statements were unprivileged, there is no evidence that Skerston—a lawyer—could have been acting in good faith when she wrote the threatening letter to Sheehan,” Bedsworth wrote.
Concluding that there was sufficient evidence to permit an inference that a reasonable person would have suffered substantial emotional distress as a result of Skerston’s actions and that Sheehan’s testimony regarding her upset was sufficient evidence of actual, substantial emotional distress, Bedsworth, joined by Justices Richard M. Aronson and Raymond J. Ikola, affirmed the trial court’s order issuing the restraining order.
Neither Skerston nor her attorney, Thomas H. Wolfsen, could be reached for comment.
The case is Sheehan v. Skerston, G039592.
Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company