Sunday, May 11, 2014

The San Diego Reader is no longer blocking me from making comments--and the Court of Appeal will hear my free speech case this Friday

I tried once again this morning to correct an error in the San Diego Reader's story about the defamation suit against me by Stutz Artiano Shinoff & Holtz. My comment went through! I'm delighted. Thank you, Reader owner Jim Holman. You're a gentleman and a scholar.

The Stutz v. Larkins case has been going on for six-and-a-half years, but the end might be in sight. I'll be presenting my oral arguments this Friday at 9 am to the Court of Appeal at 7th and B in downtown San Diego.

In August 2011 the Court of Appeal found
that Judge Judith Hayes' injunction against me
was a violation of the First Amendment, but
Hayes did not seem to get the message.

On June 21, 2012 Judge Hayes said to me,
“I’m not giving you permission to put anything on.”
(See the transcript HERE.)

In 2010 Hayes sanctioned me $3000 for violating the UNCONSTITUTIONAL INJUNCTION--AND REFUSED TO REVERSE HERSELF AFTER THE COURT OF APPEAL RULING! That injunction, which the Court of Appeal called "exceedingly broad", ordered me to never mention the name of Stutz law firm or its attorneys--not even if I wanted to seek legal counsel to defend myself against Stutz law firm's suit against me. Two years later, in 2012, relying on the 2010 contempt motion, Hayes added another $5000 sanction as punishment for my saying "Daniel Shinoff trains school attorneys" and similar statements. I'm not kidding. You can see the courtroom discussion HERE.

Here's my brief for the appeal that will be heard this week.

See all posts on San Diego Education Report about Stutz v. Larkins.

Even the American Bar Association made a big error when it wrote about this case.


MauraLarkins May 11, 2014 @ 11:45 a.m.

I liked Mr. Hargrove's article about me, but I would like to correct one error. In fact, the comment about Vito Corleone was not written by me, but rather by an anonymous visitor to my website. Mr. Hargrove's mistake can be explained by the fact that Judge Judith Hayes ignored the documentary evidence (exhibits that included printouts of my blog) when she issued a decision saying that I had published the comment!

In fact, I don't believe that Dan Shinoff makes Vito Corleone look like an altar boy. I'd say the exact opposite: that Vito Corleone makes Dan Shinoff look like the personification of moral purity.

I bear no malice toward Mr. Shinoff. I simply believe that the public has a right to know what our tax dollars are paying for, and how our schools are being run.


Blogger vs. behemoths
By Dorian Hargrove
San Diego Reader
June 26, 2013

[Maura Larkins' note about the following story: The story fails to mention that there was no weighing of evidence in this case. There was no trial. There was not even a normal summary adjudication in which the court considers evidence on both sides. Instead, the judge threw out all my evidence and my opposition to summary judgment (because of a slight defect in format). My comments were NOT found to be defamatory in fact, but rather by a technicality. That's not the same as having the statements found to be defamatory at trial.]
It’s not David versus Goliath. It’s more David taking on a gang of Goliaths.

David in this instance is former elementary school teacher Maura Larkins. Larkins, a quiet but crotchety, middle-aged resident of Lakeside, runs the relatively unknown education blog called The San Diego Education Report.

Blogger Maura Larkins

Playing Goliath is the law firm of Stutz Artiano Shinoff & Holtz. One of the firm’s chief clients is the San Diego County Office of Education, along with the 65 school districts that make up the agency’s Joint Powers Authority. Since 2009, the firm has earned more than $7.7 million defending both the districts and the San Diego County Office of Education.

The conflict has lasted for six years inside courtrooms at the San Diego Superior Courthouse. For the lawyers, it is a fight to silence an incessant blogger from publishing defamatory comments about the firm on her website. For Larkins, it is a fight for her First Amendment rights to free speech.

So far, Larkins appears to be losing.

“The case has been a huge gray cloud hovering over me,” Larkins says at a coffee house in downtown La Mesa. “It’s limited my freedom to do the other things I want to do. My family has been more severely affected than I have. They see Stutz as powerful and invulnerable and don’t believe I have any chance of prevailing.”

But Larkins remains persistent, much as she was in 2007, when she posted what lawyer Daniel Shinoff claims were personal attacks and defamatory comments about the law firm.

Those comments appeared in a 2007 blog post. In it, Larkins accused the firm of “a culture of misrepresentation and deception,” adding that “the firm clearly suffers from a lack of professionalism or lack of understanding of the law…. My own personal opinion is, if a public entity is doing business with Daniel Shinoff of Stutz, Artiano, Shinoff, and Holtz, that public entity is probably involved in dirty business.”

The dispute between Larkins and Shinoff’s law firm goes back to 2002, when Stutz Artiano Shinoff & Holtz defended the Chula Vista Elementary School District in a wrongful-termination lawsuit Larkins had filed.

Larkins lost that case but didn’t forget it. Neither did the firm.

On October 5, 2007, Stutz Artiano Shinoff & Holtz filed a defamation complaint against Larkins. The “publications by defendant…were made with malice, hatred, and ill will towards [Stutz Artiano Shinoff & Holtz], with a design and intent to injure [the firm and its] good name, its reputation, employment, and employability in the future,” reads the complaint.

The firm asked for a judgment of $100,000, saying that due to Larkins’s commentary, it suffered “embarrassment, humiliation, and significant economic loss in the form of lost wages and future earnings.”

[Maura Larkins comment: In fact, in his deposition, Mr. Artiano said that he did not know of any harm that had come to his law firm.]

In 2009, judge Judith Hayes agreed, ruling in favor of Shinoff and company. Judge Hayes prohibited Larkins from posting negative comments about the law firm. Larkins agreed, while insisting that she would not refrain from publishing facts about the attorneys.

But later that year, Larkins couldn’t hold her tongue, or stop her fingers from typing, when former San Diego County Office of Education employee Rodger Hartnett filed a wrongful-termination lawsuit. Hartnett was fired from his job after accusing his boss, a former attorney at the law firm, of showing preferential treatment to her former colleagues by assigning them the bulk of cases from the San Diego County Office of Education.

In the comments section of her website, in response to an online article on the lawsuit by former Voice of San Diego reporter Emily Alpert, Larkins wrote: “…Shinoff makes Vito Corleone look like an altar boy. Shinoff has destroyed the lives of many individuals and families; only God knows what his body count is.”

Shinoff and his partners filed a motion with the court. Judge Hayes agreed with the lawyers, fining Larkins $3000 and barring her from making any further mention of Stutz Artiano Shinoff & Holtz. “And I’m doing that not in an attempt to foreclose or eliminate [Larkins’s] right to free speech,” said the judge, “but because it is crystal clear to me at this point that she is unable or unwilling to modify her [websites] in any good-faith attempt to remove reference to that law firm. So we’re cutting it off at this point. No more reference to the law firm.”

Larkins, however, has not gone this entire time without a few legal victories. In 2011, an appellate court agreed that the earlier judgment violated Larkins’s First Amendment right to free speech. That victory was short-lived, and the case is now back in the hands of Judge Hayes, who was scheduled to hear it sometime this month. Meanwhile, Larkins continues to post articles on her website.

“It upsets my husband every time an envelope comes from Stutz. He doesn’t understand why I don’t just take down my website. But over the past decade I’ve learned that the rule of law is far less secure than I once thought, and if I don’t defend it, then I am guilty of aiding and abetting the elected officials and their associates who want to suspend it whenever it’s in their interest to do so.”

She adds, “The financial costs have been very burdensome. I had to use my credit card to pay for court costs and $3000 [in] sanctions given by judge Judith Hayes. I’m deep in debt, even after breaking into my paltry IRA account.”

Court fees continue to increase without any sign of either side backing down.

Larkins puts court fees (including the judgment) at $43,000, and that’s not counting the money spent on copies and filings.

As for the lawyers, they show no signs of letting Larkins off the hook. In an April 10 email, attorney Ray Artiano wrote: “In the complaint, we set forth a number of the defamatory statements which were made by Ms. Larkins.

“The court agreed, yet Ms. Larkins persisted in making more defamatory comments. When someone makes defamatory comments, and refuses to withdraw those comments, the remedy is to file a lawsuit such as the lawsuit which we filed. This is hardly a case of bullying. [Our law firm] is extremely proud of its reputation, and we will not tolerate the publication of untrue and defamatory comments, nor should we be expected to.”

[Maura Larkins' comment: What Mr. Artiano fails to mention is the fact that there was no weighing of evidence in this case. My comments were NOT found to be defamatory in fact, but rather by a technicality. The judge threw out my opposition to summary judgment because of a slight defect in format. That's not the same as having the statements found to be defamatory at trial. I erased the comments that were adjudicated by a technicality, even though they were true.]

Continued Artiano: “The reason for pursuing this lawsuit is obvious. Why this lawsuit is viewed by you as newsworthy is not. Unless you intend to be less than objective. We have no thought of ‘silencing our detractors.’ Those who want to express opinions are certainly entitled to do so. When comments expressing alleged facts are made, and those comments are untrue and made maliciously, action must be taken.”...


There was no trial in this case. In fact, **there was no weighing of evidence by the judge,** either. Judge Judith Hayes made her decision based ONLY on a technicality: that I hadn't used the updated format when I prepared my opposition to summary adjudication.

My statements were NOT found to be defamatory in fact, but only as a matter of law.

The judge could have weighed the evidence, but she chose not to do so. Why not?

To insulate herself even further from the facts of the case, Judge Hayes also threw out all my evidence. That was overkill, of course, since she had thrown out my opposition to summary adjudication.

UPDATE: I added one more comment:

MauraLarkins May 12, 2014 @ 4:33 p.m.

The law does NOT allow prior restraint of speech except for statements found to be defamatory "at trial". Judge Hayes did not have the right to deprive me of my constitutional rights without due process. Obviously, throwing out my evidence and my opposition to summary adjudication does not constitute due process.

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