Airport club owner’s suit thrown out
El Dorado County Superior Court Judge Suzanne Kingsbury on Wednesday dismissed Jim Mathews’ lawsuit against the neighbors he claims put him out of business.
She also ordered the restaurateur to pay the defendants’ $7,000 in court costs and attorneys fees.
The monetary sanctions were ordered under California’s anti-SLAPP statute. SLAPP, strategic litigation against public participation, are lawsuits brought forward, generally from large developers, to punish or inhibit people from participating in the public process, said Robert M. Henderson, the defendants’ attorney.
The State Legislature brought the law forward in 1992, at the urging of the California Newspaper Publisher’s Association, to hold plaintiffs responsible for defense costs in such lawsuits. This legislation was passed, then amended twice and finally signed by the governor on Aug. 11 of this year.
Henderson contended in court that Mathews, who opened the restaurant at the Lake Tahoe Airport in May 1996, brought the suit forward, while he had no realistic chance of winning, to punish the Tahoe Paradise neighbors and attempt silence their right to free speech.
Mathews began the Mountain View Club in May of 1996 with the idea of providing a place for a younger crowd to gather and listen to live popular music.
The club was booming business-wise until residents in a Tahoe Paradise neighborhood across a meadow from the airport terminal complained to authorities about noise generated by live music at the club. The neighbors obtained a restraining order in August 1996 in Superior Court that virtually banned live, amplified music at the club.
Contending that he could not draw customers to his establishment without live music, Mathew’s closed the restaurant and his lease with the city was terminated on Dec. 12, 1996.
Mathews’ lawsuit listed 22 residents in close proximity to the airport as defendants who allegedly acted in concert with each other’s permission.
Mathews also alleged that the defendants intentionally induced the city to recommend the termination of his lease by making intentional misrepresentations regarding the noise level. Finally, he alleged that the defendants did the above-mentioned acts oppressively and maliciously.
“This lawsuit is anything but a SLAPP suit,” wrote Mathew’s attorney, Dale Sare, in a response to Henderson’s motion to strike the suit.
Sare alleged his client was only trying to recoup his losses after he was unjustly put out of business by the conspiring and wrongful acts of his neighbors.
“There is no question that the conduct of the defendants which is alleged to have interfered with the plaintiff’s business activities arise out of the defendant’s rights under the First Amendment to the exercise of free speech and to petition the government for redress of grievances,” wrote Superior Court Judge Suzanne N. Kingsbury.
Kingsbury wrote that while Mathews claimed that there was no public issue at stake, she saw loud and raucous noise as prohibited by legislation enacted at both the state and local levels.
According to the anti-SLAPP statute, the plaintiff (Mathews) must show a probability of success once the defendants show their actions were spawned out of free speech.
“If the defendants’ act is constitutionally protected then, by definition, there is no probability that the plaintiff will prevail,” wrote Kingsbury. She also disagreed with Matthews’ claims that all the complaints were made up.
“It is also hard for the court to believe,” the judge wrote, “that the city council, police department, sheriff’s office and superior court were all taken in by complaints that were total fabrications.”
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