Balla v. HallAnnotate this Case
Defendant Edward Siegel was an unsuccessful candidate for the Solana Beach City Council in 2016. During and after the City Council campaign, Siegel’s campaign manager, defendant Brian Hall, sent a letter to the editor, distributed e-mails to local government and media, and posted Facebook messages about City Council members Lesa Heebner and Mike Nichols, and their relationship with local developer Joseph Balla (with Heebner and Nichols collectively, plaintiffs). Primarily using a fictional persona he created, “Andrew Jones,” Hall asserted or implied that Heebner and Nichols lobbied for the North County Transit District (NCTD) to select Balla for a Solana Beach train station project in exchange for Balla giving them design work on the project and directing a charitable donation to a nature conservancy they supported. Siegel and Hall also ran a campaign advertisement implying that Heebner endorsed Siegel in the City Council race using a favorable quote from a 2007 Certificate of Appreciation signed by Heebner and given to Siegel by the City for his volunteer work. Plaintiffs sued for defamation based on the publications, and Heebner claimed false light invasion of privacy based on the advertisement. Hall filed special motions to strike pursuant to Code of Civil Procedure section 425.16, the anti-SLAPP statute. Siegel agreed not to file anti-SLAPP motions in exchange for relief from default; when he tried to file notices of joinder to Hall’s motions, the trial court rejected them. The court permitted plaintiffs to conduct discovery on actual malice, and then denied the anti-SLAPP motions. Hall appealed, contending the trial court erred: (1) by denying his motions; (2) by denying Siegel’s joinder; and (3) in permitting discovery. In essence, his position was that his publications were political opinions about a conflict of interest and not actionable. To this the Court of Appeal disagreed: calculated or reckless falsehoods can still amount to defamation even in that context. The Court reached a different conclusion as to plaintiffs' false light claim, as Heebner did not show the advertisement was defamatory per se or introduce evidence of special damages. Finally, the Court of Appeal affirmed the joinder and discovery rulings.