Fresno City Councilmember Esmeralda Soria on Friday filed an anti-SLAPP motion in the defamation case against her state assembly campaign brought by her Fresno City Council colleague, Mike Karbassi, alleging the lawsuit is frivolous and its purpose was to draw media attention.
Karbassi sued Soria the day before the California Primary Election in June for defamation, claiming he suffered injury to his personal, business and professional reputations including embarrassment, humiliation, severe emotional distress, loss of business and significant economic loss.
According to court records, Karbassi's attorney, Brian Whelan, attempted to push the lawsuit into default. Karbassi is seeking $5 million in damages.
"As a candidate for State Assembly, Karbassi engaged in a campaign of attacking Defendant Esmeralda Soria - in particular her use of public funds," Soria's attorneys wrote in the motion. "However, when Karbassi's comments were responded to in kind, Karbassi filed a lawsuit to try to silence and retaliate against Defendant Esmeralda Soria's political speech on matters of public concern."
SLAPP stands for "Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation." These types of lawsuits are often used to silence criticism by racking up expensive legal proceedings to intimidate people who are exercising their First Amendment rights. California has strong anti-SLAPP protections.
Democrats Karbassi and Soria were running in the newly drawn Assembly District 27. It covers Fresno, Madera and Merced counties and includes the cities of Merced and Madera and a part of western Fresno. Soria advanced to the general election in November. Karbassi did not.
Karbassi sued over a late mailer Soria's campaign sent out that Karbassi said gave the impression Karbassi was guilty of a crime. The mailer contained headlines that read: "Mike Karbassi's Actions Were Inexcusable," "Guilty of battery against a student," "Arrested and cited for assault and battery of a 19-year-old student," and more.
The headlines are about Brian Calhoun, a former Fresno City College instructor who was found guilty in 2014 of misdemeanor battery on a female student. Calhoun was also a two-term Fresno City councilmember and later became a consultant. Soria's mailer pointed out that Karbassi hired Calhoun in 2019 as a $50-an-hour consultant, despite his criminal conviction.
Attorneys for Soria in the anti-SLAPP motion allege Soria wasn't initially properly served with the lawsuit, and that it was intentional.
The motion says a process server attempted to serve Soria during the June 9 Fresno City Council meeting. The server left the documents in the council chambers 20 feet away from Soria, who already was behind the dais, a secured area. The documents were inaccessible to Soria, and the server signed a false proof of service, the motion alleges.
"Mike Karbassi was also present and knows that," Soria's attorneys say in the motion. "The documents left in the chambers were never delivered to Soria."
A declaration filed earlier this week by the process server alleged Soria purposefully avoided him. The process server said he told Soria what the documents were and what he was doing, and she turned around and walked away.
"Ms. Soria clearly knew the nature and purpose of the legal documents, and she deliberately attempted to avoid service," the process server said in the declaration.
After the election, Karbassi's attorney rushed to push the lawsuit into default three times, Soria's attorneys, Port J. Parker and Jeffrey S. Einsohn of the Sacramento-based Parker Taylor Law Group, wrote in the motion.
"From this conduct, it is not a leap to infer that Karbassi and his counsel never wanted to actually serve the complaint and litigate it," the motion says. "Karbassi merely wanted the publicity that came with filing the complaint, and then he manufactured a default to garner more attention and cause further depletion of Soria's resources that would otherwise go to her campaign."
Karbassi's attorney agreed to set aside the defaults.
Soria's attorney argue in the motion that Karbassi's lawsuit hinges on Soria engaging in protected speech since her mailer spelled out the headlines were about Calhoun.
"Karbassi filed this complaint for political reasons, not to pursue a legitimate damage claim," the motion says.
Soria's attorneys in the motion ask a judge to strike down Karbassi's complaint, saying, "this complaint should be stricken and the debate returned to the political arena where it belongs."
The motion is scheduled to be heard in court Sept. 1.
Whelan, who represents Karbassi, said the motion is without merit.
"We look forward to vindicating Mr. Karbassi's legal rights in this case," Whelan said.