Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Wednesday, February 21, 2024


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Membership on Rural Advisory Council Rendered Lawyer a Public Figure—C.A.

Plaintiff Alleged Defamation Based on False Statement He Had Been Convicted of Crime Entailing Sex With Minors


By a MetNews Staff Writer


A man’s past membership in a council that advises the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors as to matters of concern within a community that’s located in an unincorporated area of the county with 805 residents is sufficient to render that person a public figure, the Court of Appeal for this district has held, affirming a judgment for the defendant in an action for defamation.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge David Sotelo granted a motion in limine determining that plaintiff Paul Henreid, an attorney, was either a “public figure or a private figure in a matter of public concern,” not deciding  which. That placed the burden on Henreid to show by clear and convincing evidence that defendant Richard Skaggs made false statements about his 1999 criminal conviction with actual malice—meaning, under U.S. Supreme Court decisions, with knowledge of the falsity or in reckless disregard of the truth.

A jury found he did not meet that burden.

Justice Gonzalo Martinez of Div. Seven, in an unpublished opinion filed Friday, said Sotelo did not err in finding that actual malice had to be established for the plaintiff to win.

“Henreid’s position as a town council member and former president is sufficient for the trial court to have determined Henreid was a public figure,” he declared. Suit for defamation and invasion of privacy was brought by Henreid against Skaggs, who was president of the Oso Town Council in 2018 when Henreid resigned from that rural advisory entity in light of his years-earlier Missouri conviction being alluded to in national news reports. Attention was drawn to that conviction, for felony invasion of privacy, after the governor of that state was indicted on Feb. 22, 2018, under the same statute that underlies Henreid’s conviction.

Henreid, picking up on the governor’s legal assault on applicability of the statute under the circumstances, pressed his pending request for a pardon. His lawyer said in a press release:

“What’s good for the governor should be good for the gander.”

(Charges against the governor, Eric Greitens, were dropped. He did not pardon Henreid.)

Superior Court Suit

Henreid’s Los Angeles Superior Court action was based on a 2018 email Skaggs sent to an individual who had been proposed to be the replacement for Henreid on the council, with a copy to others. Skaggs was concerned that the proposed replacement had been too closely aligned with Henreid, saying in the email:

“We are not going to be fooled again like we were by your compadre, Paul Henreid, who has a history of criminal convictions.”

Skagg specified that Henreid had a “history of criminal convictions for sex crimes with minors.” In fact, the conviction in Missouri, pursuant to a plea bargain, was under a statute criminalizing invasions of privacy, and did not entail an adjudication of the alleged sex crimes; the conviction had been expunged under Missouri law.

Henreid’s Brief

Henreid, in pro per, appealed from the judgment in Henreid’s favor, arguing in his brief that Sotelo erred in finding that he was a public figure or a limited public figure, saying:

“Appellant has never been a public official, has never been candidate on a ballot for public or judicial office, and has never been appointed to any public office or held any public position. Appellant is a loner, a hermit, who spends most of his time with animals—the opposite of a public figure.”

He insisted that the ruling provided a “pathway to introduce old, illogical, irrelevant, and inflammatory internet articles that several laws mandate be closed and confidential.”

Skaggs’s Argument

Skaggs, in the respondent’s brief, sought to minimize the erroneousness of his allegation in the email that Henreid was convicted of crimes that involved having sex with minors. The brief sets forth:

“The email was based on Henreid’s behavior as described in various media sources. According to newspaper articles filed at the time of the crime in 1999, Plaintiff, then known as Paul Henroid, was a law student and male stripper who had recorded his sexual encounters with women using a hidden camera and showed these recordings to his friends. According to these same articles, at least one of the women was a minor.”

The brief adds:

“The fact is Henreid pled guilty to a felony in a case that involved multiple charges of invasion of privacy, possession of child pornography and illegal sex with a minor. There is no question he committed more than one crime when he recorded his sex acts and took a “count reduction” plea bargain to escape a trial which would have most likely resulted in conviction on multiple charges and a much longer prison sentence….The fact that the ultimate plea was to one of those charges does not change the fact that his plea simply avoided a trial, it did not render those charges null and void. Plaintiff continues to try and mislead this court about his criminal behavior in law school.”

Martinez’s Opinion

In addition to finding that Henreid’s membership in the town council—an entity that exists only in rural areas of the county’s Fifth District—rendered Henreid a public figure, Martinez said that the appellant “fails to demonstrate it would have been error for the trial court to determine he was a private individual involved in a matter of public concern.” Public concern, he said, centered on the election of Henreid’s successor and Henreid’s call, in his resignation note, for an audit of the council’s finances.

Sotelo ruled admissible a 1999 article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporting the plea bargain Henreid entered into and February 2018 articles in U.S. News & World Report and the Washington Post telling of the bid for a pardon. Henreid contended in his brief that this ran afoul of Missouri statutes rendering records of expunged convictions confidential and violated “basic evidence laws such as relevance,” as well as common law principles.

Martinez responded:

“The trial court did not abuse its discretion by admitting this evidence for the limited purpose of allowing Skaggs to testify that he believed the truth of what he stated in his e-mail.”

He added:

“And we discern no prejudice to Henreid because the jury agreed with him that the e-mail statement made by Skaggs was false.”

Moved to Oklahoma

Henreid contended Skaggs’s email did not involve any controversy concerning him because he had left the community of Neenach, located in the northern portion of Los Angeles County, before the email was sent. He noted in his brief that he now “lives half a country away in Oklahoma.”

The jurist said:

“[T]he fact that Henreid no longer resided in Neenach does not mean he was not a public figure or involved in a public controversy at the time Skaggs sent his e-mail, particularly because the evidence before the trial court included—at a minimum—his prior involvement with the Oso Town Council and complaints relating to financial mismanagement requiring an audit.”

The case is Henreid v. Skaggs, B314741.


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