Tuesday, May 14, 2002
Torrance Official’s Suit Against Ex-Congressman Declared SLAPP
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A suit by a former Torrance City Council member against former Rep. Steve Kuykendall and the state GOP, claiming they invaded her privacy by falsely claiming she had endorsed the congressman for reelection, was properly stricken under the anti-SLAPP statute, the Court of Appeal for this district has ruled.
In an unpublished opinion Thursday, Div. Three held that Maureen O’Donnell could not prevail because she cannot prove the defendants acted maliciously by including her name in a mailer, based on an endorsement she had previously given but retracted.
Kuykendall, a former assemblyman, was elected to the 36th Congressional District seat when Jane Harman gave it up to run for governor in 1998. Harman won the seat back from Kuykendall two years ago.
O’Donnell, who left the city council after two terms and is now a Torrance school board member, endorsed Kuykendall in writing in 1998. Kuykendall claimed she personally told him in March 2000 he could list her again as an endorser, which O’Donnell disputed.
O’Donnell says she withdrew all support of Kuykendall after he voted against a bill to ban the procedure referred to by its critics as “partial birth abortion.” Despite that withdrawal, she claimed, the congressman and the GOP sent out a mailer in the last month of the campaign listing her as one of more than 100 public officials backing Kuykendall for reelection.
She filed suit prior to the election, after Kuykendall apparently rejected her demand that he publish a retraction in the Los Angeles Times and the Daily Breeze.
Kuykendall, state GOP attorney Charles H. Bell Jr., the ex-congressman’s campaign manager, and the executive director of the state party filed declarations indicating that the party, not Kuykendall, was responsible for the mailer and that the party believed that O’Donnell had endorsed the congressman and was unaware of any renunciation of the endorsement.
The party said it had apologized to O’Donnell after she notified it that she was not supporting Kuykendall, and that it did not include her name in any future mailings.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Ramona See granted the defendants’ special motion to strike under Code of Civil Procedure Sec. 425.16, the anti-SLAPP statute. She held that as a public figure, O’Donnell had to prove actual malice, and that she was unlikely to make any such showing at trial.
The judge awarded the defendants $7,500 in attorney fees.
Presiding Justice Joan Dempsey Klein, writing for the Court of Appeal, said the trial judge was correct. O’Donnell, she said, presented no evidence to refute the GOP’s assertion that it believed she still supported Kuykendall and removed her name once the party learned that she didn’t.
The presiding justice rejected O’Donnell’s contention that because she is no longer a council member, she is not a public figure. “...O’Donnell has not returned to obscurity,” Klein explained, having remained active in Torrance affairs, and her claim to private-figure status “somewhat disingenuous,” the jurist concluded.
Klein also rejected the argument that the Kuykendall campaign knew that she was no longer supporting him, and should not have given her name to the state party, because she told the congressman’s campaign manager in August 2000 that she would not sign a letter of support.
Under the circumstances, Klein said, it was reasonable to construe that refusal “as limited to that letter, with the refusal related to Kuykendall’s position on partial birth abortions, as contrasted with a general withdrawal by O’Donnell of her previous endorsement of Kuykendall’s candidacy. “
The case is O’Donnell v. Kuykendall, B148888.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company