Judge Tosses Out Businessman's Defamation Lawsuit Involving Weekly
An Orange County Superior Court judge this month dismissed a defamation lawsuit by Shaheen Sadeghi after concluding the wealthy, often-controversial Orange County real-estate developer's legal action was an improper use of the court system to stifle public debate about his maneuverings.
Judge Ronald L. Bauer granted a case-ending motion by Walt Sadler, the attorney for Delilah Snell—owner of a small, successful Santa Ana business, the Road Less Traveled—after concluding her statements in a 2011 OC Weekly profile about Sadeghi were "a matter of opinion and thus beyond the scope of provable defamation."
Snell told Weekly reporter Michelle Woo, who wrote "The LAB Man"—a largely favorable report on Sadeghi—the businessman had threatened to copy her eco-friendly business if she did not rent space at one of his retail centers.
The judge viewed the dispute as a David-vs.-Goliath battle. He said Sadeghi "has a large footprint in Orange County," with many retail centers—including the LAB and the CAMP in Costa Mesa—while Snell, fiancée of Weekly editor Gustavo Arellano, "is a small player on the scene."
In his lawsuit, Sadeghi argued that Snell's comment constituted defamation, invasion of privacy and multiple business-related claims, all of which caused him damages. Snell argued that Sadeghi's court complaint was merely designed to silence critics, a key point Sadler made in his successful motion describing the case as a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation.
After noting that Sadeghi tried to convert a single quote into nine "redundant causes of action," erroneously claiming he'd been wronged by "multiple quotations," Bauer sided with Snell.
"The plaintiff's ethics, business plans and impact on the community are all matters of public interest," the judge wrote in his four-page, April 15 ruling. "The plaintiff has also not shown that he has suffered any damage—or even a hint thereof—as a consequence of this article."
Bauer, one of Orange County's most respected, veteran judges, also determined Snell's statement didn't accuse Sadeghi of any wrongdoing and the businessman had no probability of winning his complaint in court. "The worst thing that could perhaps be said about [Snell's] statement is that it might imply that Sadeghi is a bully," the judge wrote. "It might be said, with no small amount of irony, that if it can indeed be proven that a person is a bully, this lawsuit would be Exhibit 1 in that proof."
In a separate lawsuit, Sadeghi also sued the Weekly for the same news story; it is pending in Judge David T. McEachen's Santa Ana courtroom. A June 10 case-management conference is scheduled.
Click here to read the Sadeghi v. Snell Minute Order.
* * *
JURY BUYS FULLERTON COPS' EXCUSES ABOUT TRUMPED-UP CHARGES
Not surprisingly, an Orange County jury this week gave the proverbial shoulder shrug to a lawsuit claiming that Fullerton cops singled out a citizen for physical harassment and fabricated criminal charges because he used his iPhone to film alleged police brutality in 2010.
The unanimous verdict against plaintiff Veth Mam from a panel of five women and three men—who could have easily been corralled for civic duty while shopping at Fashion Island—came after only two hours of deliberations following a six-day trial.
Garo Mardirossian, Mam's attorney, passionately urged jurors to "send a message" to police that citizens have a right to record their conduct and not face retaliation from "abusive" cops.
"[Mam] saw an injustice, took out his camera and began filming," said Mardirossian, who compared his client to the unknown but famous Chinese man who risked his own life by standing in front of a line of tanks during 1989 communist brutality in Tiananmen Square. "Veth Mam was that tank man in downtown Fullerton."
He also blasted cops for "their code of silence" to protect one another from accountability for lying and cautioned the jury that if they rule against Mam, they are giving dirty cops in Orange County an unmistakable signal. "They are going to think, 'We can get away with [corruption],'" said Mardirossian.
During his closing argument to the jury, Dana A. Fox, an attorney for officers Frank Nguyen and Jonathan W. Miller, ridiculed Mardirossian's attempt to "play on your emotions," and then shamelessly linked his clients with another unrelated event: police work in the recent Boston Marathon bombings.
Fox—a superb, commanding speaker—said the problem for Mam was that he didn't obey numerous officer commands to "back up" from the scene and that his lack of compliance created his own troubles with cops, who were rightfully worried about a crowd getting out of control.
That cops pursued five criminal counts against an innocent Mam from the filming incident showed no malice and was a "reasonable" mistake, Fox argued.
Steven J. Rothans, the lawyer for Kenton Hampton—known for his participation in the police beating death of Kelly Thomas in July 2011—urged jurors to put themselves in the shoes of the officers who, despite concocting wildly falsified police reports to make themselves heroes, had truly been motivated, he said, by one passion: "preventing a riot" on the night of the incident.
Using the deep voice of a movie-trailer announcer and the cadence of a Baptist preacher a week away from paying rent, Rothans argued that despite police errors (and there were many), the cops acted "reasonably." He dared jurors to compare the credibility of Mam, who was found innocent in 2012 of all of the criminal charges filed against him, to the officers, who tried to send the innocent man to prison—and still don't seem the least bit regretful.
As did Fox, Rothans also tied the Fullerton cops in this case to the "first responders" in Boston, who are "special folks" who run toward explosions.
U.S. District Court Judge Josephine Staton Tucker eventually told the jurors to disregard references to both Tiananmen Square and the Boston bombing.
Having covered notoriously pro-cop Orange County juries for nearly two decades, I knew what the two cop lawyers from Los Angeles might not have fully appreciated until today: They really didn't need to break a sweat. This is, after all, a county in which law-enforcement officers can stand feet away from a pretrial inmate being viciously beaten to death for 30 or 40 minutes by a massive group of fellow inmates, absurdly claim they saw and heard nothing, and escape any legal culpability.
This is also the place where a jury let a patrol cop get away with ejaculating on a woman's blouse during a late-night, illegal traffic stop. (See "Illegally Park-ed," Feb. 8, 2007.)
A subdued Mam didn't look too pleased by the verdict. He declined to comment. But Hampton—the cop accused of attacking him for the filming—happily hummed in the hallway inside the Ronald Reagan Federal Courthouse.
* * *
DA SCHEDULES VICTIMS'-RIGHTS RALLY
Tony Rackauckas' Orange County district attorney's office is holding its Fifth Annual Victims' Rights March & Rally in Santa Ana on Friday. The event begins with a 9:30 a.m. reception at the DA's headquarters, followed by a 10:30 a.m. march to the Old Orange County Courthouse and an 11 a.m. rally. Speakers will include victims'-rights advocates Dr. Henry Nicholas III and Rachel Alvarado, who is raising her murdered daughter's two young children.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Orange County, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.