A few months ago, Kelly Aviles, an attorney representing the Monterey County Weekly, schooled attorneys representing the city Greenfield on First Amendment protections. The city had sued the Weekly aiming to block publication of privileged information and forcing the paper to return records that were marked "attorney-client privilege," but a judge ruled the paper did have the right to do so.
Part of the Weekly's defense included filing an anti-SLAPP motion—that's Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation.
California's anti-SLAPP statute exists, according to the Weekly's 2018 motion, because “the Legislature finds and declares that there has been a disturbing increase in lawsuits brought primarily to chill the valid exercise of the constitutional rights of freedom of speech and petition for the redress of grievances” and “that it is in the public interest to encourage continued participation in matters of public significance.”
The idea is that an anti-SLAPP case is filed for the purpose of chilling First Amendment powers, with the intent of silencing the defendant. If a party prevails in an anti-SLAPP motion, they also win attorney's fees.
Greenfield lost its case and agreed to pay the Weekly's attorney's fees before a judge ruled on that anti-SLAPP motion. But here's the ironic part: Five months later, the city has filed its own anti-SLAPP motion against the two employees who were the center of the Weekly's coverage that got this whole legal battle started to begin with.
They are former city manager Jaime Fontes and former community services director Mic Steinmann, who were both fired last year.
Both now have lawsuits against the city of Greenfield alleging wrongful termination. The gist of their complaints are that the former mayor, Jesus OlveraGarcia, attempted to meddle in city business, trying to thwart the burgeoning cannabis industry in Greenfield. He ordered Fontes to fire Steinmann, who was on the front lines of executing agreements with marijuana businesses, at the direction of the previous City Council. When Fontes refused, the council fired Fontes. Then the new city manager, Paul Wood, fired Steinmann a few months later.
That brings us to the two pending lawsuits by Steinmann and Fontes against Greenfield. The city filed an anti-SLAPP motion of its own against the two plaintiffs, alleging their suits violate city councilmembers' rights of free speech.
"Plaintiff, by way of his complaint, is attempting to chill defendants' valid right to exercise their constitutional rights of freedom of speech in connection with a public issue," attorney Ellen S. Lyons wrote in the city's anti-SLAPP motion.
"Plaintiff is attempting to thwart defendants' constitutional right of petition and free speech."
The parties were in Monterey County Superior Court on Friday, March 15 on the motion. If Judge Susan Matcham agreed with the city's motion, the case would've been over, Greenfield would've won—and recouped attorney's fees.
But she wasn't buying the argument that Fontes' and Steinmann's lawsuits violate councilmembers' rights of free speech.
"What I am interested in is where you see protected speech," Matcham asked Lyons.
"Certainly there is some speech here, but the complaint is not about that, this is about that two individuals lost their jobs. This really doesn’t go to protected speech."
Matcham rejected the city's motion, but also denied the plaintiffs' attorney, John Klopfenstein's, motion for attorney's fees.
"I don’t think this is a frivolous motion," she said. "These motions require analysis."
The case will proceed, with the next hearing scheduled for June 25.