Friday, July 3, 2015
Law Firm of Ex-Politico Nick Pacheco Rebuffed in C.A. Over SLAPP Claim
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The law firm of former Los Angeles City Councilman Nick Pacheco has lost its bid in the Court of Appeal to have actions of wrongful termination against it by two former employees declared to be a SLAPP.
Justice Elizabeth Grimes of this district’s Div. Eight said in an unpublished opinion that defendant Nick Pacheco Law Group, APC, had failed to show that the companion lawsuits, filed by ex-employees Carlos and Rocio Lira, stem from the firm’s protected activity.
The near-identical complaints filed by the spouses, each with 21 causes of action, allege, among other things, that the plaintiffs were fired after protesting that they were not fully reimbursed, as they were assured they would be, for their compelled $500 political contribution to the ill-fated 2011 bid by businessman Rudy Martinez to unseat City Councilman Jose Huizar campaign.
Their allegations of money laundering were investigated by the City Ethics Commission. (The commission found that Juan Jaramillo partially reimbursed 11 of the law firm’s employees, including the Laras, for donations to Martinez and paid a fine; according to Pacheco, Jaramillo was an independent contractor who did marketing for him, and not an employee of his.)
The plaintiffs also contended that Pacheco wrote a letter to their prospective employer denigrating them with untruths, resulting in employment being denied them.
Pacheco’s firm sought to have the two complaints stricken, on various grounds, through an anti-SLAPP motion. The political contributions involved protected activity because they were tied to “an issue under consideration or review by official proceeding authorized by law: [the] Los Angeles City Ethics Commission investigation,” the law firm asserted.
It said the letter to the prospective employer was protected because it was sent in anticipation of litigation.
The defendant insisted that the true reason the Liras were fired was that they falsified employment eligibility documents, placing the law firm “in the position of submitting a false I-9 Form and filing inaccurate returns with the Internal Revenue Service and the Social Security Administration all of which are protected activity....”
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Robert L. Hess was correct in denying the motion, Grimes said in her opinion, filed Tuesday. She wrote:
“This case involves garden-variety wrongful termination, retaliation and discrimination claims; defendant’s termination of plaintiffs is not somehow catapulted into protected activity because it occurred contemporaneously with an investigation by the Ethics Commission; or because it occurred in retaliation for plaintiffs’ whistleblowing activity; or because plaintiffs allegedly caused defendant to make false filings to the IRS or Social Security Administration. None of plaintiffs’ claims are based on this conduct.”
“As to the claims arising from Pacheco’s letter to [the prospective employer], defendant failed to make the required prima facie showing that the letter was written in anticipation of litigation, contemplated in good faith….Although the letter represented that ‘I am exploring all my legal options to protect my clients’ interests from my former employees,’ this is not enough. The declaration which authenticated the letter was silent about any anticipated litigation. Moreover, there was no evidence that litigation was ever commenced from which we could reasonably infer that litigation was anticipated at the time the letter was drafted.”
Pacheco served in the Los Angeles City Council from 1999–2003. He sought unsuccessfully to wrest the post of Los Angeles County district attorney from incumbent Steve Cooley in 2004; in a field of six candidates, Cooley won in the primary, with Pacheco garnering 15 percent of the vote and coming in second.
Pacheco’s Mission Hills law firm was represented in the appeals court by Michael Poole. Marina Kats Fraigun was the attorney for the Laras.
The case is Lira v. Nick Pacheco Law Group, B257882.
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