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Judge again tosses Zell firm's defamation suit against San Diego County supervisor

March 20, 2009|Tony Perry

SAN DIEGO — For the second time, a San Diego federal judge has dismissed a defamation lawsuit filed against a local politician by a mobile home park firm controlled by Sam Zell, chief executive of the company that owns the Los Angeles Times.

U.S. District Judge Napoleon A. Jones Jr., in a ruling disclosed Thursday, said the statements made in 2002 and 2003 by county Supervisor Dianne Jacob about the ill treatment of tenants at parks owned by Zell's company, Equity LifeStyle Properties Inc., appeared to be true.

Jones said the plaintiff's attorneys had not shown they were likely to prove that the statements were untrue and harmful if the case went to trial.

Jacob's attorneys had argued that the lawsuit against her was the kind the Legislature meant to outlaw when it passed a law to protect people against suits aimed at making them afraid to speak up on public issues.

"This is a victory for residents in Zell-owned parks who had the guts to stand up for what they believe in," Jacob said. "I'm grateful to the court for protecting my free speech rights for the second time."

At issue were Jacob's comments, to constituents and in a letter to Zell, that the mobile home firm lied to the county about fixing a sewage problem, that prosecutors were considering criminal or civil sanctions against the company and that the firm had a reputation for forcing out elderly tenants so it could raise rents.

Equity LifeStyle owns more than 300 mobile home parks in 28 states. Zell is chairman of the publicly traded company.

In 2005 Jones dismissed the company's lawsuit against Jacob and San Diego County. Last year the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that although some of Jacob's statements were not actionable, the case could proceed to trial on three of the statements.

Jacob's lawyers amended their dismissal bid to include different legal arguments.

Jones this week found those arguments more persuasive than the rebuttal by Equity LifeStyle lawyers, who retain the right to appeal this ruling to the 9th Circuit court.

Last year Jacob published an essay titled "I Won't Be Sued Into Silence," in which she said Zell was using the judicial system "to bully me and intimidate those who dare criticize how [his company] treats its customers."


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