Appellate Court Rejects Libel Case Involving OC Weekly Article On Shopping Mall Owner
A California Court of Appeal has rejected efforts by a prominent shopping-mall developer to revive his failed 2012 libel lawsuit involving an OC Weekly cover story.
Shaheen Sadeghi--owner of Costa Mesa's the LAB anti-mall and the CAMP shopping outlet--hoped to win reversal of Orange County Superior Court Judge Ronald L. Bauer's 2013 decision to dismiss the lawsuit against Delilah Snell, a Santa Ana small-business owner and named source in the story, after determining the court action was an improper use of the judicial system to try to silence critics, or SLAPP, a strategic lawsuit against public participation.
In the Christmas Eve ruling, the Santa Ana-based appellate justices backed Bauer, opining that the content of the December 2011 Weekly article consisted of constitutionally protected speech by Snell on public issues and that Sadeghi's libel claims were not likely to prevail at a future trial because, in part, he hadn't been accused of any wrongdoing.
"Contrary to the plaintiff's claim, [Snell] did not accuse him of stealing or committing a crime," the opinion states.
The dispute stemmed from a Dec. 9, 2011, feature on Sadeghi, a former Quiksilver president, and his hipster-style business developments that often involve lucrative deals with local governments. Written by then-Weekly staffer Michelle Woo, the article contained an assertion by Snell, owner of Road Less Traveled in Santa Ana, that Sadeghi threatened to copy her successful green/natural-living shop if she didn't relocate her shop to his properties. Woo, who has won numerous journalism awards for her in-depth profiles, included her subject's denial of Snell's claim as well as laudatory information about his achievements on the local shopping scene. The story even labeled him the "Curator of Cool."
But Sadeghi insisted that Snell's assertion was defamatory and that he had been additionally harmed by his inclusion in the Weekly's 2012 Halloween-themed "Scariest People" issue, a list the plaintiff complained tied him to "child molesters, serial killers and Dana Rohrabacher," Orange County's senior, lame politician.
The 11-page appellate ruling written by Justice David Thompson, one of the region's most respected judges, declared all of Sadeghi's claims lacked merit against Snell, the wife of Weekly editor Gustavo Arellano.
"The record reflects [the] plaintiff and his business activities are matters of public interest," Thompson wrote on behalf of himself and justices William Rylaarsdam and Richard Aronson. "Plaintiff portrays his businesses as containing environmentally friendly tenants, and his website declares the LAB's unique mix of tenants draws international attention. He claims his centers are the heart of a burgeoning arts and entertainment center in Orange County, with a goal to make 'Orange County less Orange County.' And he boasts they have sales comparable to those at South Coast Plaza. These things are of interest to developers, consumers, the culture and entertainment public. As the trial court observed, 'eco-friendly merchandising, rehabilitation of old buildings and the goal of making Orange County a hip community are matters of public interest.'"
Snell--who was represented by Los Angeles-based lawyers Walter R. Sadler and Jamie Lynn Frieden--is entitled to recover legal costs from Sadeghi for the appeal, according to the ruling.
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