Judge tosses restaurant's slander case

LOS ANGELES — A Superior Court judge on Thursday dismissed a series of slander-related legal actions that owners of a Montrose restaurant and banquet hall filed against Glendale residents Robert and Sharon Thompson, capping a nearly yearlong battle over free speech.

The Montrose Collection, which is also facing pending criminal charges from the city over allegations that it is operating illegally as a banquet hall, alleged in its complaint against the Thompsons that the restaurant lost business as a result of the couple’s attempts to photograph and videotape business operations.

The Thompsons, who live behind the eatery, aired their findings at City Council meetings and repeated allegations that the business was operating illegally to City Council members.

The suit also alleged that the couple made false police reports and made dinner reservations but failed to show up.

The restaurant owners said the couple’s actions amounted to slander, interfered with the restaurant’s prospective economic advantage and intentionally inflicted emotional distress on the restaurant owners.

But Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Ruth A. Kwan found on Thursday that the Thompsons’ actions were protected under the 1st Amendment and that Montrose Collection attorney Derek Tabone failed to provide sufficient evidence that the Thompsons’ allegations were false.

“I’m elated,” said Robert Thompson, who added that he had spent at least $12,000 on legal fees. “This is a one-year burden off of, at least temporarily, our shoulders. Justice was served. But it’s a shame this had to happen.”

The Thompsons’ attorney, Robert Miller, labeled the Montrose Collection’s complaint a strategic lawsuit against public participation — known in the legal world as a “Slapp” suit, typically used to silence people who speak out against a business or institution’s operations — and in turn filed two anti-slapp motions to dismiss all causes of action against the couple.

Under California law, Miller’s anti-slapp motions triggered a special two-step legal process that’s meant to weed out un-meritorious cases, he said. The first step required Miller to provide sufficient evidence that the Thompsons’ actions were protected; after meeting that threshold, the burden shifted to Tabone to provide evidence backing up the Montrose Collection’s accusations of slander, business interference and infliction of emotional distress.

But Tabone failed to provide evidence that the Thompsons’ statements that the Montrose Collection was operating illegally were false or that their actions interfered with the business’ prospective economic advantage, Kwan said in her ruling.

Tabone disputed that the Thompsons’ actions were protected and said he had planned to provide more evidence as the pre-trial discovery process continued.

Montrose Collection co-owner Takui Aivazian had not made a determination Thursday as to whether she would appeal the judge’s decision.

But Tabone said an appeal is likely.

If the ruling stands, Montrose Collection owners will have to pay the Thompsons’ attorney fees, Miller said.

A hearing in the city’s pending criminal case, which alleges that the eatery lost its grand-fathered rights to operate as a banquet hall when it underwent an expansion, is set for April 3 in Glendale Superior Court.

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