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SLAPPing Back

SLAPPing Back
Animal activists win money award after City Attorney files intimidation lawsuit

~ By ALLISON MILIONIS ~

t might not affect the size or grandeur of the Los Angeles City Attorney's office holiday party, but the city's lawyers just took a pretty big hit from the animal rights community. On December 14, the Animal Defense League ' Los Angeles (ADLLA) announced it had been awarded a hefty $75,000 for an anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) motion against the city. It's the largest monetary award on record in California for an anti-SLAPP suit.

And it's not the first anti-SLAPP case lost by the City Attorney's office. In 2004, ADLLA received $15,000 in legal fees after winning on a similar appeal. A SLAPP is a form of litigation typically filed by large organizations to intimidate and silence a critic by simply burying them under the cost of mounting a legal defense. A number of states, including California, have enacted anti-SLAPP statutes to prevent the misuse of these suits and level the playing field.

Since 2003, ADLLA has led a boisterous and often irritating campaign against the L.A. Department of Animal Services (LAAS), accusing them of incompetence and egregious abuses against animals and employees. The city has met their persistent criticism with equal resistance. Last year, City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo targeted ADLLA with a 14-count criminal charge, and two activists affiliated with the organization were also charged in a separate case and later acquitted. Currently, ADLLA President Pamelyn Ferdin and her husband, trauma surgeon Jerry Vlasak, are appealing a conviction handed down in June.

ADLLA has not been shy about making demands. Indeed, they are vocal and relentless, often demonstrating at the homes of city officials. But according to the appeals court that handed down the anti-SLAPP decision, the group is acting within the law.

"The majority of these suits are filed when someone is demonstrating in a certain way," says ADLLA attorney John Uribe. "In this case, the City of L.A. aggressively tried to silence these activists because they're vocal, out in the street, and exposing corrupt activities in animal services. We uncovered a design strategy to stop them [ADLLA] from demonstrating."

According to Uribe, internal documents were discovered during the trial that clearly describe a concerted effort to silence the activists. "Animal Services is making claims that it [ADLLA] makes it hard for them to do their job. They're pressuring the city attorney to do something about it."

Why would the city attorney's office be willing to put so much effort into such a long litigious campaign?

"The union," says Uribe. "City attorneys are in the same union as city employees and they're a big voting block. The City Attorney and the mayor's office would want them on their side. There is no other reason why they would be going after ADLLA."

"Just follow the money trail," says Ferdin. "No mayor wants to piss off a union."

"That ludicrous," says Jeff Rogers, director of communications for Local 347 of the Service Employees International Union, or SEIU, which represents both animal workers and attorneys. "That just shows how out of touch they are. The city attorneys have a duty to follow the law that is completely independent of any union affiliation."

But ADLLA isn't afraid of the union. In 2005, a group of demonstrators picketed outside the home of Local 347 President Julie Butcher, accusing her of harboring corrupt LAAS employees and tying up the mobile adoption program. LAAS did not return calls to CityBeat.

Butcher has no tolerance for ADLLA and, in fact, called them "terrorists" in the L.A. Times. Responding to the current ADLLA court victory, Butcher says, "The reason why there are so many lawsuits by the city is because [ADLLA] continue to do outrageous things, including torturing the workers and the people who love them. It has nothing to do with what union anyone is in."

"The group does not participate in violence of any kind," says Uribe. "The city keeps going after ADLLA rather than change LAAS policy. They've decided it's easier to kill animals than find homes [for them]. ADLLA is asking for no-kill shelters."

Ferdin says they have no intention of backing down, no matter how many law-suits get thrown their way. But it's a costly pursuit for the city and for ADLLA. The monies awarded are just enough to cover legal fees. Ferdin says the city should be putting that toward an adoption campaign rather than going after activists exercising their constitutional rights. "They could have created a really good radio announcement with the $90,000 we've won in appeals."

The thrill of this recent victory is short-lived for Ferdin and Uribe; they have to prepare for their next courtroom battle ' the criminal case against the group. Uribe says it's exhausting but remains committed to working with ADLLA. "This group is doing not just for themselves and for animals, but to fight against government. That's why they feel it's important to expose them."

 

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