Judge moves mayor-union lawsuit forward

A lawsuit filed by two Costa Mesa councilmen against the city's police association, its former law firm and a private investigator moved forward Wednesday when a judge ruled that some of the alleged acts against the officials were not protected by the 1st Amendment.

Judge Gail A. Andler denied all of the defense's anti-SLAPP motions — or Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation — which had argued that Mayor Jim Righeimer, his wife Lene Righeimer and Mayor Pro Tem Steve Mensinger's lawsuit was stifling the 1st Amendment rights of the Costa Mesa Police Assn.; their former law firm, Lackie, Dammeier, McGill & Ethir; and Chris Lanzillo, a private investigator.

The councilmen's civil action, filed in August in Orange County Superior Court, alleged harassment and intimidation from the three parties during the heated 2012 election season. The defendants argued that much of the activity referred to in the lawsuit was Constitutionally protected free speech.

"Clearly, defendants may not be held liable for conduct such as voicing their political views and encouraging others to attend public meetings," Andler wrote. "This is the hallmark of our democracy. The principal thrust of the complaint is not this protected 1st Amendment activity … "

Vince Finaldi, the councilmen's attorney, described Andler's ruling as a positive development. He called the anti-SLAPP motions "a minor speed bump on the road."

"Now the handcuffs are off," Finaldi said, "and we can start litigating in earnest action."

Sy Everett, the police union's attorney, said he's looking forward to the next court date and will analyze Andler's anti-SLAPP decision in the meantime.

"We're going to continue to litigate this matter in court," he said.

Andler's ruling grants all parties the ability to gather additional evidence, Finaldi said. Before, the anti-SLAPP ruling had denied that power, though Andler did permit the deposition of Lanzillo last month.

Lanzillo offered little during his testimony, according to court documents, and took the 5th Amendment protecting him from possible self-incrimination more than 200 times.

"We can do what we've wanted to do and what's necessary in order to protect our clients' interest," Finaldi said. "Now that we have the ability to do this is when it's going to get really interesting. We're going to find out exactly how large the scope of this misconduct is."

The lawsuit still faces another major hurdle on May 5, when Andler is scheduled to consider dismissing the case on an altogether different basis, known as a demurrer.

In March, Andler sustained the demurrer, contending that councilmen's complaint had "fatal legal flaws."

She gave them a chance to amend their complaint, saying the original document wasn't able to establish the needed connection between the police union on one hand, and Lackie, Dammeier and Lanzillo on the other.

Finaldi said Andler's decision on the anti-SLAPP motions could potentially be applied to denying the demurrer.

If the judge is consistent, Finaldi said, "She's gonna have to rule in our favor. It's not a good day for the defense."

Attorney Jerry Abeles, who represents Lackie, Dammeier and Lanzillo, did not return a request for comment Wednesday afternoon.

Among the lawsuit's claims are that a GPS device was placed under Mensinger's truck and used to track his movements.

The lawsuit also alleges that Lanzillo, a former Riverside police detective, followed Righeimer after he left a fellow councilman's bar and reported him for drunk driving.

Righeimer took a field sobriety test in front of his Mesa Verde home and wasn't cited. He later publicly said that he only drank Diet Coke and called the incident "a setup."

The CMPA fired the Lackie, Dammeier firm soon after the Lanzillo incident and denied any prior knowledge of its tactics or the DUI call.

Attorneys for the CMPA and Lackie, Dammeier said in January that the case is political and that what occurred, including the DUI call, falls under protected speech and conduct.

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