Friday, March 4, 2011
Court of Appeal Rules for Incumbents in GOP Leadership Battle
Suit by Ousted Officials Held SLAPP in Opinion by Justice Chaney
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
An action by conservative activists, who claim the current leadership of the Republican Party of Los Angeles County illegally usurped their positions, has been rejected by this district’s Court of Appeal under the anti-SLAPP statute.
Div. One, in an unpublished opinion Wednesday authored by Justice Victoria G. Chaney, said the lawsuit threatened the defendants’ free speech rights, and that the common law right of fair procedure did not apply to the plaintiffs’ claims.
The plaintiffs were led by Richard Vaughn, a self-described libertarian and one of several members who challenged established party leaders for office in the biennial vote held in December 2008.
County Republicans, like their Democratic counterparts, elect central committee members during the primary election held in even-numbered years. That committee, in turn, elects officers later in the year.
The officers elected at that December 2008 meeting came from the “newcomer” slate that included Glen Forsch as chair, Lydia Gutierrez as first vice chair, and Vaughn as second vice chair.
‘Surprise Coup Event’
The committee’s May 2009 meeting, however, was marked by what the plaintiffs called a “surprise coup event” that included a vote to “vacate” the position of committee chair, and the committee then split into two groups that met separately; maintained separate bank accounts and web sites, and raised funds, in the party’s name; and issued separate communications in which each purported to be the official leadership.
The plaintiffs alleged in their complaint that as a result of “the coup events,” Forsch and Gutierrez resigned and Vaughn became chairman. They claimed that subsequent meetings chaired by Vaughn were official meetings of the committee and that the other plaintiffs—Ted Hayes, Manny Aldana, Roger L. Eshelman, Nancy Comaford, Constance S. Ruffley and Sandra Needs—became or remained officers.
The purported removal of officers at the May meeting was invalid, they contended, for a number of reasons, in particular lack of prior notice that such action would be sought.
‘Valid and Legitimate’
The defendants alleged that all of the officers elected in 2008 either resigned or were ousted by a lawful vote of the committee, and were subsequently replaced by a new slate, led by Jane Barnett, who had lost the first vice chair election to Gutierrez. Chaney noted in her opinion “that, by and large, the Republican community treated defendants and not plaintiffs as the valid and legitimate Chairman and Executive Committee of RPLAC.”
In May 2010, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Michael C. Solner granted the anti-SLAPP motion, essentially finding that the defendants were validly elected as a result of the events of the previous May. He subsequently awarded them $90,000 in attorney fees—$15,000 less than they asked for—and over $6,000 in costs.
The defendants and their supporters largely prevailed in the 2010 committee elections, and were returned to office at the organizational meeting last December. That would have rendered the appeal moot, Chaney explained, except that the court had to resolve the merits in order to determine whether the defendants were entitled to costs and attorney fees.
Given that the plaintiffs sought to enjoin the defendants from speaking on the party’s behalf, it is “disingenuous” for the defendants to now claim that they did not target First Amendment rights.
As for whether the plaintiffs showed a likelihood of prevailing, the justice distinguished Wilson v. San Luis Obispo County Democratic Central Committee (2009) 175 Cal.App.4th 489, which the plaintiffs relied upon.
Wilson upheld the expulsion of a member of a party central committee, noting that the member and her supporters were given notice of the intended action and an opportunity to speak prior to the vote. But the Court of Appeal, in that case, avoided the issue of whether the plaintiff had a right of fair procedure by holding that the procedures were fair, whether they had to be or not, Chaney noted.
Other cases, including a California Supreme Court ruling, Chaney explained, hold that the right of fair procedure only applies when a substantial economic interest is at stake, as when a doctor is dismissed from a residency program. She also noted that—unlike the plaintiff in Wilson, the plaintiffs were not expelled from the committee, but merely ousted from leadership.
The justice went on to say that the fee award, part of which went to two firms that were not counsel of record, was not excessive. There was no question, she said, that the firms worked on the litigation and contributed to the successful defense.
Chaney also rejected the claim that Solner abused his discretion by awarding more than $5,000 to the San Francisco law firm of Dhillon & Smith for sending three lawyers to the hearing on the anti-SLAPP motion.
Since the judge cut more than that amount from the overall fee request, and did not specify why, the plaintiffs cannot say with certainty that he allowed that particular item, Chaney said. But even if he did, she concluded, it was not an abuse of discretion because the firm—whose name partner Harmeet K. Dhillon is a member of the San Francisco Republican Central Committee—has special expertise relevant to the issues in the case.
Barnett said yesterday in a statement:
“I am relieved that this yearlong battle is over. RPLAC is now able to go forward to fight to take back our county and state from those who would raise taxes for bigger government rather that make government more accountable. I believe in the rule of law and the courts have spoken—three times.”
She added that the party “is unified and preparing for the 2012 election.”
The case may not be over, yet, however, as the plaintiffs may petition the state Supreme Court for review, attorney Richard D. Williams of Kelly Lytton & Williams told the MetNews.
“My clients are evaluating their options,” he said. “No decision has been made.”
He added that the plaintiffs are “very disappointed, particularly that the court chose to decide the case on technical legal grounds, rather than reaching the merits.”
The case is Vaughn v. Barnett, B226108.
Copyright 2011, Metropolitan News Company