Sonoma Media Investments, LLC v. Superior Court (Scott Flater), 031519 CAAPP1, A151968

Docket Nº:A151968, A152008, A152320
Opinion Judge:SIMONS, J.
Party Name:SONOMA MEDIA INVESTMENTS, LLC et al., Petitioners, v. THE SUPERIOR COURT OF SONOMA COUNTY, Respondent SCOTT FLATER, Real Party in Interest. WILLIAM GALLAHER et al., Plaintiffs and Appellants, v. SONOMA MEDIA INVESTMENTS, LLC et al., Defendants and Appellants; DAVID MCCUAN, Defendant. WILLIAM GALLAHER et al., Plaintiffs and Respondents, v. DAVID...
Judge Panel:We concur. JONES, P.J., BURNS, J.
Case Date:March 15, 2019
Court:California Court of Appeals
 
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SONOMA MEDIA INVESTMENTS, LLC et al., Petitioners,

v.

THE SUPERIOR COURT OF SONOMA COUNTY, Respondent

SCOTT FLATER, Real Party in Interest.

WILLIAM GALLAHER et al., Plaintiffs and Appellants,

v.

SONOMA MEDIA INVESTMENTS, LLC et al., Defendants and Appellants;

DAVID MCCUAN, Defendant.

WILLIAM GALLAHER et al., Plaintiffs and Respondents,

v.

DAVID MCCUAN, Defendant and Appellant;

SONOMA MEDIA INVESTMENTS, LLC et al., Defendants.

A151968, A152008, A152320

California Court of Appeals, First District, Fifth Division

March 15, 2019

NOT TO BE PUBLISHED

Sonoma County Super. Ct. No. SCV-259927

SIMONS, J.

Plaintiff William Gallaher is a real estate developer in Santa Rosa. During the 2016 Santa Rosa City Council election, defendant The Press Democrat published a series of five articles about substantial independent election expenditures made by Gallaher's son-in-law, plaintiff Scott Flater, on behalf of three City Council candidates. Plaintiffs allege the articles falsely implied that Gallaher was the source of the funds spent by Flater during the 2016 election. Plaintiffs brought suit against The Press Democrat, Sonoma Media Investments, LLC (the owner of the newspaper), Kevin McCallum (the author of the articles), 1 and David McCuan (a professor quoted in one of the articles), asserting causes of action for defamation, libel per se, and false light invasion of privacy. Defendants moved to strike the complaint pursuant to the anti-SLAPP statute, 2 section 425.16 of the Code of Civil Procedure (Section 425.16).

The trial court granted the motion in part, denied the motion in part, and continued the motion in part to permit plaintiffs to conduct discovery on the issue of whether defendants acted with malice as to their statements regarding Flater. Defendants appealed, plaintiffs cross-appealed, and the media defendants petitioned for writ relief from the discovery order. We conclude the trial court should have granted defendants' Section 425.16 in full because plaintiffs failed to make a prima facie showing the allegedly defamatory statements in the articles were false.

BACKGROUND

Between October 20 and November 11, 2016, defendant newspaper The Press Democrat (owned by defendant Sonoma Media) published five articles written by defendant McCallum. The articles reported on a large amount of spending by plaintiff Flater on behalf of three candidates for the Santa Rosa City Council during the 2016 election. Defendant McCuan is a Sonoma State University political science professor quoted in the October 28 article. Plaintiffs allege the articles were defamatory because they implied that plaintiff Gallaher, a prominent local developer, was the source of the funds spent by Flater, his son-in-law.

The Press Democrat Articles

The first article, dated October 20, 2016, was entitled “Campaign finance gaps allow large donations in Santa Rosa council race.” The article reported that candidates were “getting a big bump from big money interests this election.” In addition to $75, 000 raised by “[a]n independent anti-rent-control group, ” the article explained that “Scott Flater, the son-in-law of politically active developer Bill Gallaher, recently reported spending nearly $40, 000 to help support two other candidates.... [¶] While he didn't give the money directly to either candidate, the contributions raise questions about whether Flater or people close to him are exploiting gaps between state and city campaign finance laws that limit individual campaign contributions to $500 each but allow ‘major donors,' such as Flater, to spend unlimited sums.” The article quoted concerns expressed by one of the candidates about such independent expenditures, and the article reported that Flater had “fail[ed] to file required campaign disclosure documents on time, ” which Flater's political consultant described as an “oversight.” The City Clerk was cited for the proposition that “[t]here is nothing illegal about Flater spending his own money in favor of candidates he supports, as long as he isn't giving money directly to the campaigns or accepting donations from others.”

The October 20, 2016 article described plaintiffs as follows: “Flater, 40, is married to Gallaher's daughter Molly, vice president of asset management for Gallaher's company Oakmont Senior Living. Gallaher is one of the city's most successful developers, having built hundreds of homes in Oakmont, as well as luxury senior living facilities.... He also owns a large property in east Santa Rosa on Elnoka Lane that he's been trying to develop for over a decade.” Flater's political consultant said “he believes Flater is spending his own funds in support of candidates but acknowledged he didn't know if the funds originated from his developer father-in-law. [¶] ‘I don't believe that's true,' [the consultant] said, adding he thought it ‘highly unlikely.' ”

An October 28, 2016 article was entitled “Santa Rosa City Council candidates benefit from unprecedented spending.” The article commenced, “An unprecedented amount of outside money continues to flow into the Santa Rosa City Council race, raising questions about the people behind the last-minute campaign spending spree and their motivations. [¶] Scott Flater, son-in-law of politically active Santa Rosa developer Bill Gallaher, filed new campaign finance disclosures this week indicating that he has spent $130, 375 to date to support three candidates... among the field of six vying for four council seats.” The article noted that, including spending by an anti-rent control group, “the amount of outside money pouring into the local City Council race appears to have smashed all previous records.” It continued, “The new disclosures brought a fresh round of denunciations from candidates that argued that the unlimited spending by wealthy individuals and outside groups was having a corrosive effect on local politics.”

The October 28, 2016 article distinguished between direct campaign contributions and independent expenditures and reported that plaintiffs and their spouses had each given $500 to one of the candidate's campaigns. Flater's profession was listed as “homemaker” in the donation record. The candidate described the donations as being part of a “bundle, ” and defendant McCuan was reported as commenting, “That... is a pattern Gallaher has of ‘sprinkling money around' to family members to maximize payments to - and potentially influence with - council candidates. [¶] “Bill Gallaher uses his family as a shell game, and has for a long time, in order to channel support to candidates of his liking.... It sounds to me what they have done is against the letter and the intent of the law.” Flater and Gallaher could not be reached for comment, but Flater's political consultant was quoted as saying, “ ‘I believe that Scott Flater is acting independently with his own money in these races.... I pretty much know for sure.' ” The consultant also observed that Gallaher was “found to be ‘clean' when he was investigated... for allegations that he violated campaign finance rules in a previous local election.”

An October 29, 2016 article was entitled “Outside money breaks record.” Aside from the title, it is identical to the October 28 article.3

A November 5, 2016 article was entitled “Complaint filed against big spender in Santa Rosa City Council race.” The article commenced, “A Santa Rosa contractor has filed a complaint with the state political watchdog alleging that the son-in-law of a prominent Sonoma County developer has violated campaign finance laws with his role in the unprecedented influx of outside cash flowing into this year's Santa Rosa City Council race.” The complainant was quoted as saying “he ‘strongly suspects' that the record spending by Scott Flater is fueled by money that has been ‘laundered and bundled' by others. [¶] ‘I think this is an attempt to avoid transparency.... It's very hard to judge what the economic interests behind this are, which is the whole point of the disclosure requirements.' ” The complainant was also reported to say that “Flater's late spending spree... has telltale signs of someone who has agreed to act as a front man for other[] donors, allowing them to shield their political contributions and potential economic interests in the race from public view.” The article quoted the chairman of the Sonoma County Democratic Party as saying the spending “raises the question as to whether all the money is actually being put in by Scott Flater or by someone else.”

The November 5, 2016 article noted Flater's relationship to Gallaher and that Flater had spent “nearly $192, 000 on mailers and canvassing in support of three of the six candidates for City Council.” That spending “accounts for more than a third of the total in the race, including spending by candidates' campaigns.” The article...

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