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SYNDICATED COLUMN: Sue the SOBs? It’s Harder Than You Think

8-15-16

Are you one of those Americans who say it’s too easy to file a lawsuit? As I can tell you from personal experience, it’s anything but. The canard that U.S. courts are jammed up by litigious jerks is based on anecdotes spread by corporate propaganda.

We do need “tort reform” — but we should make it easier to sue, not harder.

What about all those “frivolous lawsuits” you’re always hearing about? You hear about them because deep-pocketed corporations run TV ads complaining that they’re being victimized by predatory trial lawyers. The truth is, big companies don’t want to be held accountable in the courts for their misdeeds.
What most people don’t know is that judges are good at ferreting out frivolous lawsuits before they get very far. If you get sued, the first thing your defense lawyer will do is file a “motion for summary judgment” — a request that the judge throw out the case because it’s weak. Between this and other methods of winnowing out bad cases, at least 95% of civil claims never make it to trial.

The dirty secret is that American courts have created so many hurdles to sue that it’s become daunting for all but the most determined plaintiffs to pursue justice. My case against The Los Angeles Times illustrates how hard it is for an individual to sue a large entity.

The Times fired me as its editorial cartoonist in July 2015, apparently as a favor to LAPD’s police chief, whom I had mocked in my cartoons.

Neither I nor Times readers were aware that there was a conflict of interest between the paper and the fuzz: the LAPD’s union pension fund was a major shareholder of the Times’ parent company.

It ought to be illegal for a government agency or an entity associated with a government agency to buy stock in a media company — but it isn’t.

The Times published an article accusing me of having lied in a blog post. I was able to show that I’d told the truth. But after I sent the Times the exonerating evidence — which attracted worldwide media attention and calls for my reinstatement — instead of issuing a retraction and giving me back my job, Times executives doubled down, publishing a second piece reaffirming the first one. In March 2016, I filed suit in LA Superior Court against the Times for defamation, wrongful termination, blacklisting and other charges.

As I expected, the Times’ defense attorney filed a motion to dismiss my case on the grounds that it was not meritorious. The judge denied.

After that, California’s legal and financial hurdles became nearly insurmountable.
When free speech groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation get behind something, I’m usually all for it. The First Amendment is my religion. But speech advocates’ support for a federal anti-SLAPP law is wrong — and terrible for freedom of expression. Perhaps they haven’t thought this all the way through.

Twenty-eight states and D.C. have passed anti-SLAPP laws. On paper, they sound great. A “SLAPP” (strategic lawsuit against public participation) is a lawsuit the plaintiff doesn’t think he’ll actually win. The purpose of a SLAPP is to harass you by forcing you to hire a lawyer and tie you up in court. It’s an intimidation tactic sometimes used by big companies to silence individual whistleblowers and critics. Is the problem really widespread? No one knows. No one has done a serious study.

If you get sued in a state with an anti-SLAPP statute, your anti-SLAPP motion is a powerful tool. Discovery (depositions, subpoenaing of evidence) halts. If the judge rules in the defendant’s favor that a suit is frivolous, the case gets tossed and the plaintiff pays the defendant’s attorney fees. This is supposed to make jerky plaintiffs think twice before filing a SLAPP.

There are two big problems with this theory.

First, anti-SLAPP isn’t likely to deter frivolous SLAPPs filed by wealthy companies and individuals. Wealthy entities have more than enough money to litigate anti-SLAPP and to absorb the potential awarding of attorney’s fees to defendants. In fact, proponents have never come up with any statistical evidence that anti-SLAPP laws deter frivolous lawsuits.

Second, the intent of anti-SLAPP laws — to protect the little guy from the big guys — is constitutionally prohibited. You can’t grant rights to some defendants but not others; there are plaintiffs and defendants, period. So there’s nothing to prevent a rich megacorporation from using anti-SLAPP against Joe Schmoe.

Which is how the LA Times, the fourth largest newspaper in the U.S. and part of a $512 million media conglomerate, was allowed to file an anti-SLAPP motion against a $300/week cartoonist. In other words, the Times censored my cartoons and tried to ruin my journalistic career for their owners, the police. Then they accused me of violating their First Amendment rights!

Starting with their anti-SLAPP motion, Times’ lawyers have unleashed a barrage of tactics to delay my suit and harass me. And it’s worked — for nearly a year, I haven’t been able to question Times editors or LAPD officials under oath or subpoena documents that would help me build my case — or my defense to the anti-SLAPP motion. I’ll get my case before a jury in 2018 or 2019 — if I’m lucky.

Or I’ll be broke.

Three days of anti-SLAPP hearings in Rall v. Los Angeles Times begin February 28th in LA Superior Court. My attorneys spent many hours preparing our opposition to that motion. Legal fees aren’t cheap, so the expense of defending against an anti-SLAPP filing before the case even begins is enough to deter some plaintiffs from filing valid lawsuits.

If the judge rules for the Times, I’ll be ordered to pay the Times their legal fees. The Times told the court their bills would be at least $300,000. If she rules for me, the Times can and probably will appeal to the Court of Appeals. That means more work for me and my lawyers and months, maybe another year, of delay — and justice delayed is justice denied. If the appellate court agrees with the Times, my case gets thrown out and I’ll have to pay the Times’ bills — which by then will be significantly higher.

I know I’m right. And I think the law is on my side. But by filing a lawsuit in an anti-SLAPP state, I’m risking bankruptcy. How many would-be plaintiffs get scared away from pursuing their legitimate claims? How many defendants get away with illegal behavior by abusing anti-SLAPP laws?

Anti-SLAPP opens the door to unfair defense tactics. LA Times lawyers invoked an obscure California statute to require me, as a non-California resident, to post a cash bond to guarantee the Times’ legal bills if they win on anti-SLAPP. They asked for $300,000; the judge knocked it down to $75,000. Just to keep my case going — before it begins, really — 75 grand was the cost of entry.

Thanks to concerned readers who gave to my GoFundMe campaign, I raised the $75,000. After I turned over the money to a bond company who filed it with the court (more fees there), the Times tried to get the case thrown out on the ground that the form hadn’t been filled out perfectly.

Still think it’s too easy to sue?

There’s hope for change. In 2015 Washington State became the first state to find its anti-SLAPP statute unconstitutional because it denies plaintiffs their fundamental right to a trial by jury. Anti-SLAPP, the Washington Supreme Court ruled, “seeks to protect one group of citizen’s constitutional rights of expression and petition — by cutting off another group’s constitutional rights of petition and jury trial.” Minnesota and D.C. may do the same.

Congress should pass a federal law about this — one that bans anti-SLAPP laws.

(Ted Rall is author of “Trump: A Graphic Biography,” an examination of the life of the Republican presidential nominee in comics form. You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)

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SYNDICATED COLUMN: Got $75,000? The LA Times Is Trying to Bankrupt Me

SmithDepo

Got $75,000?

That’s how much The Los Angeles Times is demanding that I pay them.

After they fired me for phony reasons.

After they published lies about me.

They set out to destroy me, but the truth came out and ruined their plan. So now they’re determined to bankrupt me — by abusing the court system.

One year ago, The Los Angeles Times fired me in what became known as The Ted Rall Scandal. I’ve been their cartoonist since 2009. Never had a problem. Was never late. Never did anything wrong. My bosses never had a complaint — to the contrary, I received nothing but praise.

What I didn’t know, and my editors didn’t know to tell me, was that the political cartoonist of The Los Angeles Times isn’t allowed to criticize the police. I wish I’d been informed. I have principles, but I also have to eat. If they’d told me the cops were off-limits, I wouldn’t have criticized the LAPD, police brutality, corruption or incompetence. If I’d known that LAPD chief Charlie Beck enjoyed special most favored nation status on the LA Times editorial page, I would have left him alone.

But no one told me. So I did what cartoonists are supposed to do: I criticized and ridiculed and made fun of the cops.

Unbeknownst to me, dark forces were aligned against me.

In 2014, Tribune Publishing, the Chicago-based $499 million conglomerate that was the parent company of the LA Times, brought on a brutal, cynical billionaire named Austin Beutner as its new publisher. Beutner had made his money in the 1990s, raping the ruins of post-Soviet Russia. He had big political ambitions: mayor of Los Angeles, perhaps even governor of California.

Beutner had no experience in newspapers. Probably never even delivered one as a boy. But Beutner had what Tribune wanted: a contact list full of potential investors. As for Beutner, he figured he’d use the paper to make up for his lack of name recognition among voters. It was a match made in hell.

Beutner made good on his promise to bring cash into the troubled Tribune organization by midwifing a deal between his only political ally, the LAPD’s police union (the Los Angeles Police Protective League) and Oaktree Capital, a Beverly Hills based investment firm. The LAPPL moved its $16 billion pension fund to Oaktree. At the same time, Oaktree became the number one shareholder in Tribune. The local police owned the local paper.

The LAPPL made no secret of its appreciation. Weeks after being named publisher, Beutner was given the LAPPL’s 2014 Badge and Eagle Award for
“support[ing] the LAPD in all that they do.”

In July 2015, the fuzz called in their chit with Beutner.

As has only recently been revealed by my lawsuit against the LA Times for defamation and wrongful termination, the plot against me began with a conspiracy at the highest levels of city government and the corporate media elite.

Chief Beck secretly met with Beutner. He handed him documents, as well as a CD-ROM containing an audio recording, that he convinced Beutner would be adequate proof that I was a liar and a fabulist, and therefore sufficient legal cause for firing me. And not just for firing me. They wanted to make an example out of me. They were out to destroy me. So they published not one, but two articles — something they’d never done before, ever — calling me a liar.

I was freelance. Why not just tell me I was no longer needed? Because Beck and Beutner thought I’d be a pushover. And because they wanted to send a message to every journalist in Southern California. Don’t criticize law enforcement. If you do, your career will be over.

Times readers have never been told the source of these documents. I would never have found them if I hadn’t filed my lawsuit. In brazen violation of the newspaper’s own rules governing the ethical conduct of journalism (ironically written by the author of the second smear piece, Deirdre Edgar), Beutner and his minion who wrote the first smear piece, editorial page editor Nick Goldberg, protected Beck as an anonymous source.

The key evidence used against me, both to fire me and to use as the focus of two unusual articles published by the Times in their campaign to destroy my journalistic career, was the audio file. It contained about 20 seconds of audible speech and over six minutes of road noise.

That recording, secretly made by a police officer who arrested me for jaywalking in 2001, supposedly proved that I had been treated politely by the cop, not rudely handcuffed as I had written in the Times. Cheap and/or careless, the Times didn’t have the “evidence” authenticated or analyzed. Big mistake.

Things fell apart for the Times after my firing.

I paid to have the tape professionally enhanced. Turned out, there was a woman shouting “take off his handcuffs!” buried under all that static. I was vindicated. Independent journalists and other media outlets agreed.

Driving the point home, the LAPD public information office said that the audio never came out via official means. In other words, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck ginned up the evidence from somewhere else: probably a self-made, crappy dub made by the police officer himself 14 years before. It wasn’t official evidence. It wouldn’t have been admitted in court and it shouldn’t have been used to fire anyone — something a real journalist, not a billionaire financier, would have known.

I eventually obtained a copy of the official audio file from the police department itself via a public records act request. What a difference! It was clean. It looked different. And it was different. Without any enhancement at all, you could hear an angry crowd of people yelling at the officer about my mistreatment.

By this time, the Times’ ridiculous assault on free expression had blown up in their faces. Social media and the Internet had gone crazy. Journalists of all political stripes had come to my defense. Tribune, knowing that they had screwed up, fired Beutner so unceremoniously that he wasn’t allowed to use his own email account to say goodbye, and was escorted by security guards out of the building.

All I wanted was my job back and a retraction. An apology would be nice too. I don’t know why, even after all this, the Times is fighting this lawsuit. The way they’re acting, you would think that I was the one who had hurt them.

Their latest legal maneuver is beyond belief. Although discovery hasn’t begun yet, things haven’t been going well for them during initial hearings in court. That’s how it goes when you don’t have a legitimate defense for your indefensible actions. So their lawyer is resorting to scorched earth tactics. The last thing they want is for 12 Angelenos to listen to my case, consider both sides, and render justice.

The sleazy move their lawyer cooked up is to file an “anti-SLAPP” motion against me. California legislature passed the anti-SLAPP law to stop the following scenario: “A deep-pocketed corporation, developer or government official files a lawsuit whose real purpose is to silence a critic, punish a whistleblower or win a commercial dispute.” (Those words are by the LA Times’ editorial board, written two weeks after they smeared me!)

I’m not a deep pocketed corporation. I’m not a developer. And I’m not a government official. I’m a critic. So I’m the one this law was designed to protect.

Incredibly, the Times’ lawyer is arguing that I, an individual freelance cartoonist with a five-figure income, is quashing the Times’ free-speech rights! If they convince the judge that they are right, my case gets thrown out and – get this – I’m going to have to pay their attorneys’ fees!

Even more incredibly, they asked the judge to force me to post a $300,000 bond now, in advance, to guarantee their attorneys’ fees if they win their anti-SLAPP motion. She knocked it down to $75,000. But it’s not like the 10% bail that you hear about on TV. I owe the entire $75,000 on or before Thursday, August 18. My lawyers and I prepared a brief to fight it, but because the Los Angeles court system is so backed up, we can’t get a hearing until next summer. So another words, I either cough up $75,000 by next Thursday, or the Times gets away with what they did to me.

If you like to read more about the case and/or contribute to my fundraiser – I am not going down without a fight – please click here or go directly to http://gofundme.com/tedrall.

(Ted Rall is the author of “Bernie,” a biography written with the cooperation of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. His new book, the graphic biography “Trump: A Graphic Biography,” is now available.)

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Got $75,000?

SmithDepoJust over a year ago, the Los Angeles Times fired me. They lied about what I did. They smeared me. And when they got caught, they just kept lying. You’d think that would be enough personal destruction for one newspaper against one $300/week cartoonist. But apparently not.

I’m suing them for defamation, wrongful termination, blacklisting and five other charges. So far the case is going well. That’s because they don’t have any defense. They’re wrong, and they know it. So they’re doing everything they can do, kicking and screaming, to prevent me getting my day in court in front of jurors.

Their latest sleazy maneuver: they filed a motion demanding that I post $75,000 to guarantee their attorneys fees in the event that they prevail in a lawsuit against me. We have a counter motion ready to go. But because the Los Angeles Court system is so jammed up, we can’t get a hearing date until summer of 2017. In the meantime, the bond is due next week, on Thursday, August 18.

Bottom line: unless I get $75,000 to the court by Wednesday, August 17, my case will automatically be dismissed and the Times will win.

That’s why am asking for your help. If I can raise the $75,000, I can post a bond and keep my case going. If I prevail, the money will be returned. And I will send it back to you. So this is kind of a unique fundraiser.

Here’s the link: gofundme.com/tedrall
Please spread the word.

This case has already yielded dividends. For example, we discovered that the source of the crappy audio tape and dubious documents supplied by the police to the LA Times was none other than the chief of police himself, Charlie Beck. Beck hated me because I had drawn a lot of cartoons making fun of him and criticizing him for his tolerance of police brutality.

Can you imagine what we will discover in the event that we are allowed to go forward with the case and do full discovery? We will have access to emails, internal documents, you name it. All of them will become public records. But that won’t happen unless I get that $75 posthaste. Please read up on the case and please help out.

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PRESS RELEASE: Cartoonist Ted Rall Claims LA Times “Adds Insult to Injury” with “Bullying Financial Demands” Following Alleged Defamation, Blacklisting and Wrongful Termination

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Cartoonist Ted Rall Claims LA Times Adds Insult to Injury with Bullying Financial Demands Following Alleged Defamation, Blacklisting and Wrongful Termination

LOS ANGELES—August 9, 2016 — Shegerian & Associates, Inc., a Santa Monica-based litigation law firm specializing in employee rights, has announced that the Los Angeles Times attempted to demand $300,000 in “legal fees” from its client, the cartoonist and author Ted Rall. Rall is currently suing the Times for defamation, blacklisting, wrongful termination and breach of contract.

Shegerian & Associates founder Carney Shegerian described the Times’ request for Rall to post $300,000 to guarantee the Times’ attorney fees in the event they should win their anti-SLAPP motion as a “bully move against a freelance cartoonist by a corporation that is egregiously inverting the very anti-SLAPP statute designed to protect employees from big corporations.”

The court has since ordered the Times to lower its request to $75,000.

“It feels almost like they are forcing me to ‘pay to play’ if I am to see my day in court,” said Rall. “You’d think after what happened, they would be issuing an apology and offering me my job back, not trying to bankrupt me after wrongfully firing me.”

Rall was originally hired by the Times as an editorial cartoonist in 2009 and published approximately 300 of his cartoons and more than 60 of his blog posts in the paper between 2009 and 2015. At no time during his employment was Rall disciplined or written-up and he was consistently praised for his work.

In May of 2015, Rall created, and the Times reviewed, approved and published, a cartoon titled, “LAPD’s Crosswalk Crackdown; Don’t Police Have Something Better to Do?” In the accompanying blog post criticizing the LAPD’s crackdown against jaywalking as reported by the Times, Rall referenced his own previous experience of being falsely arrested, unduly rough-housed and handcuffed by an LAPD officer allegedly for “jaywalking.”

In July of 2015, after the LAPD contacted The Times to question the accuracy of this cartoon and blog post, the Times decided to terminate Rall within 24 hours.

In his filed complaint, Rall explained that at no point did the Times allow him to speak to his regular supervisor, or to the editorial board to discuss his case — a violation of the Times’ Ethical Guidelines. Shortly after the termination, The Times published a rare “Note to Readers,” indicating that the paper had doubts about the veracity of Rall’s blog post due to an audio recording they obtained of Rall’s original jaywalking incident. The note also stated that the Times would no longer be publishing Rall’s work.

The Times failed to follow the standard of procedure for authenticating evidence and thus did not have grounds to publicly accuse Rall of falsifying information on his blog entry. After the Times’ note was published, Rall took it upon himself to have the audio examined by experts. The enhanced version of the audio supported Rall’s version of the encounter, and he presented this to the Times. Despite this exonerating evidence, the Times published yet another article further defaming Rall.

“The Times’ suspicions about the veracity of Mr. Rall’s blog post were unfounded in that they failed to properly investigate the accusations and refused to acknowledge proof that Mr. Rall’s blog post was, in fact, accurate,” said Shegerian. “The public defamation and subsequent blacklisting of our client following blatantly wrongful termination should be enough of a slap in Mr. Rall’s face, but the demand now for this freelance cartoonist to pay the Times’ legal fees in advance of a trial demonstrates that not only does the LA Times not play by its own rules employment-wise, as we will demonstrate in court, it behaves in a vindictive and unfair manner as well.”

(Case no. BC613703)

###

Located in Santa Monica, Shegerian & Associates is a law firm specializing in protecting the rights of employees who have been wronged by their employers. Richly experienced in labor and employment law and possessing an unparalleled success record as litigators (Carney Shegerian, Trial Lawyer of the Year Award winner for 2013, has won 73 jury trials in his career, including 31 seven figure verdicts), Shegerian & Associates is passionately dedicated to serving the needs of its clients. For more information about the firm, visit www.ShegerianLaw.com

Media Contact: To arrange interviews about this case with Carney Shegerian or Ted Rall, please contact Paul Williams, 310/569-0023, paulwilliams@shegerianlaw.com.

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