Judge allows defamation lawsuits by council member, developer to go forward

A San Diego Superior Court judge said two Solana Beach City Council members and a developer have grounds to proceed with their lawsuit against an unsuccessful city council candidate and his campaign manager, who the plaintiffs alleged fabricated personas to defame the council members and spread false information about a development project.

The lawsuit filed in May 2017 (and amended in October 2017) by former Councilman Mike Nichols and current Councilwoman Lesa Heebner alleged defamation by unsuccessful council candidate Ed Siegel and Brian Hall, Siegel’s campaign manager. The lawsuit also alleged invasion of privacy by the defendants. Siegel came in last in a field of six candidates in the November 2016 election.

Judge Joan M. Lewis ruled Sept. 6 that Heebner, Nichols and developer Joseph Balla can proceed with their defamation lawsuit against Siegel and his campaign manager Brian Hall.

In an email sent to a reporter, Hall said he now plans to appeal that ruling. In a motion filed with the court prior to the Sept. 6 hearing, Hall had sought to have the lawsuit dismissed under an anti-SLAPP law. Hall and Siegel have the right of appeal under the anti-SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) law, which allows “defendants to strike potentially meritless causes of action early in litigation while obtaining a mandatory fee award,” according to the Bar Association of San Francisco.

The council members and developer alleged Siegel and Hall wrote a letter to the editor to the Coast News in October 2017. The letter was titled, “Shady business on the Solana Beach train tracks,” and accused Nichols and Heebner of potentially profiting through contracts related to the redevelopment of the Solana Beach train station (which is owned by the North County Transit District), according to the lawsuit. The defendants also wrote a series of emails and social media postings during and after Siegel’s failed council bid, according to the judge’s ruling. Lewis found the communications were written by Hall but published under a fake name, “Andrew P. Jones,” the ruling stated. The court’s ruling for the case also shows that Hall created a fake wife for Jones, “ Lillian Rearden.”

“Unlike a pseudonym where an individual may publish under a name other than their own true name, here Hall actually created people -- ‘fake people’ -- through which a jury could find he pursued a campaign, at least in part, to defame the plaintiffs,” the judge wrote in her ruling.

The judge’s ruling quotes Hall as saying, “Lillian Rearden is an alter ego, you know, nom de guerre, nom de plume, whatever you call it, and so is Andrew Jones. So they’re kind of like related. So they’re, you know, husband and wife, you know, fake people.”

In her ruling, Lewis found that, using the fake identity, Siegel and Hall attacked Heebner, who was not a candidate in the 2016 election, and Nichols. The defendants claimed the council members worked with Balla in a “backdoor deal” to obtain the contract for the train station project and receive certain professional favors in return. Neither Heebner nor Nichols would have had a vote on the development project, the judge noted. The North County Transit District was in charge of vetting proposals for the project.

Under the guise of Andrew P. Jones, Siegel also published an ad in which he claimed Heebner endorsed his campaign, the judge’s ruling stated. In her ruling, Lewis found that the plaintiffs have “met their burden of establishing that defendant acted with actual malice as that term is defined for purposes of a defamation cause of action.”

“Considering the defendants’ conduct prior to the publication of this advertisement (e.g., ‘We need a Lesa Retaliation’; accusing Heebner of backdoor deals, etc.), a trier of fact could conclude that the publishing of this advertisement conveying that Heebner supported Siegel’s campaign when she clearly did not and defendants (Hall and Siegel) knew she did not, was made with actual malice,” the judge wrote in her ruling.

In a news release, Balla’s attorney, Dick Semerdjian, commended the judge for her findings.

In response to reporter questions regarding the fabricated personas, Hall said it was not illegal to create and use them.

“All that glitters is not gold,” he wrote in an email. “Andrew Jones is a created entity used during the course of the 2016 election; many political campaigns and Letters to the Editor utilize alternative names for personal expression. It is not illegal to create another persona, is it?”

He also added that citizens should be able to question the government without fear of retaliation.

“If people cannot question government, what republic is that in which we live in?” he asked in an email. “Is it such a bad thing to take a stand against injustice and try to make the world a better place? A private citizen should not be sued by public figures for addressing valid concerns.”

Siegel declined to comment on the judge’s ruling. He instead referred a reporter to his lawyer, Jon Corn, who did not respond to requests for comments by this newspaper’s press time.

Heebner said she was grateful the judge “realized Hall and Siegel made up their false claims out of thin air with nothing to back them up.”

“These guys were reckless and thought they could get away with anything using the cover of an election,” the council member wrote in an email.

Heebner said in another email that “Brian Hall has elected to appeal the judge’s ruling so it is necessary for us to participate in the appeal.”

-- Reporter Joe Tash contributed to this report

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