Editorial comment: After a review of court documents, the BenitoLink staff believes readers need more clarification on a recent decision by Judge Omar Rodriguez. The judge granted a special motion to strike or remove the plaintiffs’ claims. That decision means plaintiffs must pay the defendants’ attorney fees. Although the motion to strike and the award of attorney’s fees were considered a final order, the judge said it could be appealed within 60 days of the July 1 order. Rodriguez also made a motion to dismiss based on attorney Brad Sullivan’s failure to “state a viable claim.” The judge sustained a demurrer (a type of legal protest) filed by Resendiz but agreed that the plaintiffs had a right to come back with new or revised claims within 90 days (Sept. 30).
The July 1 hearing in the San Benito County Superior Court for three lawsuits against the city of Hollister, Mayor Ignacio Velazquez and Councilman Rolan Resendiz were postponed for 90 days because the attorney for the plaintiffs was undergoing chemotherapy.
Superior Court Judge Omar Rodriguez granted Lodi attorney Brad Sullivan the continuance (See PDF below) to give him time to determine if he would be able to represent Hollister residents Elia Salinas and Irma Gonzalez, and her daughter, Jennifer Gonzalez, or else find another attorney to do so.
Sullivan, who participated in the hearing via Zoom, asked Rodriguez if the court would either assist him in finding a replacement counsel due to his illness or allow him to complete treatment in order to continue representing his clients. He said that in his search for a local attorney, “none of them want to get involved in this dispute, and that’s why Elia and Irma reached outside the community.”
Under a broad umbrella of accusations (See PDF below) alleging actions and statements made on social media, in a public location, and in council chambers, Salinas and Gonzalez are suing Velazquez and Resendiz for alleged harassment, cyber-bullying, and a violation of their civil rights. As the conservator of Jennifer Gonzalez, Irma Gonzalez included her in the suit for the same three charges, in addition to a claim they violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by “acting willfully to injure, intimidate, interfere with, oppress, and threaten the plaintiff.”
Sullivan said he had spoken to Jonathan Belaga, the city’s and Velazquez’s attorney, concerning Velazquez’s and Resendez’s Facebook comments about Salinas and Gonzalez and admitted he was “threading the needle,” in an attempt to separate what could be protected political language from personal language. He said while the two politicians’ Facebook posting may be protected, he did not think comments made by their followers—who, he told BenitoLink—had threatened the two women, were covered.
Belaga, who was in the courtroom, told Rodriguez that Sullivan had enough time to seek other arrangements, and even if Sullivan had done so, he claimed what Velazquez posted on Facebook was protected political speech if what was said was either made during a legislative proceeding or in relation to a proceeding. He separated his clients, the city and Velazquez, from what Resendiz posted on Facebook, saying Resendiz’s statements did not “touch the city or the mayor.” He said it would not matter how long Sullivan had because he would not be able to produce evidence to lead to any “recovery from somebody else’s political speech if they’re offended.”
“Even offensive political speech is protected,” he said. “I don’t know why we’re even here.”
Belaga claimed Sullivan had not told him what the alleged speech was and asked that the complaints against Velazquez and the city be dismissed. Resendiz’s attorney, Dan Gagliardi, who attended the hearing via Zoom, said he was sympathetic to Sullivan’s request, but asked for an amendment to strike the complaint against Resendiz to “get some closure,” but allow 90 days for the plaintiffs to decide if they wanted to continue pursuing their case. He added, though, that he agreed with Belaga that he didn’t see how the plaintiffs could do so.
Rodriguez agreed to amend the complaint and gave the plaintiffs 90 days from July 1 to bring the case back. Sullivan told BenitoLink he would talk to his clients and if they wanted to continue, he would refile the case then.
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