ENCINITAS — Mayor Catherine Blakespear filed a countersuit this week against a group of residents alleging they violated terms of a short-lived settlement agreement, marking the latest salvo in an ongoing legal battle over First Amendment violations on social media.
Attorneys representing Blakespear, a Democratic candidate for the 38th State Senate District, filed a cross-complaint on Wednesday in Vista Superior Court against Carlsbad attorney Michael Curran and five Encinitas residents — Robert Nichols, Garvin Walsh, Jordan Marks, Stephen Meiche and Matthew Wheeler — claiming they leaked the settlement terms to The Coast News in violation of the agreement’s confidentiality clause.
San Diego attorney Carla DiMare, who replaced Curran as the residents’ legal representation, filed a lawsuit in September against Blakespear for allegedly blocking residents’ public comments on her mayoral Facebook page in violation of their free speech rights and subsequently breaching the terms of the settlement agreement at issue in the mayor’s counterclaim.
Blakespear’s countersuit seeks unspecified damages and attorneys fees from the plaintiffs.
“Robert Nichols and Michael D. Curran, Esq.’s disclosure of the terms of the Settlement Agreement to The Coast News on or before May 17, 2022, only days after the parties’ execution of the settlement agreement, shows that they had no intent to comply with the confidentiality provisions of the Settlement Agreement and that they took unfair advantage of Mayor Blakespear,” the cross-complaint reads.Cross-Complaint (00476816xAEB03)
Kevin Sabellico, Blakespear’s campaign manager in her bid for the California Senate, claimed the lawsuit filed against the mayor was driven by political opponents who had recklessly leaked confidential information to the media.
“This is still a politically-motivated, right-wing attack against Mayor Blakespear, which is exactly why she is bringing a cross-complaint against the plaintiffs for abusing the judicial system and operating in bad faith,” Sabellico said.
Nearly all of the residents in the lawsuit have identified as Democrats and vehemently denied the lawsuit as politically motivated.
DiMare condemned Blakespear’s countersuit, arguing the mayor’s latest filing was a frivolous attempt to force the plaintiffs to settle.
“In my opinion, it is disgraceful that Mayor Blakespear countersued her constituents,” DiMare said. “There is no doubt that Blakespear breached her settlement agreement after she repeatedly censored the free-speech rights of those she disagreed with. We do not want our government to silence its citizens. Rather than admit what she did was wrong, Blakespear filed a frivolous countercomplaint. Blakespear continues to prove that she is unfit to hold any public office. Mayor Blakespear knows that the counter-complaint is meritless, but they filed it as a tactical reason because they know that the complaint by our plaintiffs is solid.”
DiMare said the plaintiffs will continue to press forward with their preexisting litigation.
Five days after the reported settlement agreement, The Coast News published “Blakespear reaches settlement agreement with Facebook critics” on May 17, revealing the mayor would issue a public apology, pay an undisclosed sum of money (later to be revealed as $5,000) and pledge to refrain from censoring critics on her social media accounts in the future.
Several days after the article’s publication, Blakespear issued a public apology for her actions on Facebook.
“Politics on social media have become an incubator for hate and vitriol that turns too many civically engaged people away from the civic dialogue,” Blakespear’s post reads. “As a woman serving in elected office, I have been the target of threatening and harassing comments on my social media and in my daily life — personal attacks, not simply ones disagreeing with my policy perspectives.
“Recently, an attorney sent me a cease-and-desist letter on behalf of certain individuals and anonymous complainants who claimed they were not able to participate in my campaign Facebook page. In the cease-and-desist letter, the complainants threatened to sue me if they did not receive a public apology for their inability to participate. To that end, I publicly apologize to anyone who did not have full access to my campaign Facebook page or other social media accounts.”
Curran, the residents’ former attorney, publicly denounced Blakespear’s apology, claiming the post’s insincere language violated the settlement’s terms. Curran said the mayor had further broken the settlement after attempting to pay $5,000 in damages with a check drawn from a Blakespear for Mayor 2020 campaign fund and not her personal finances.
As a result of these alleged violations, DiMare filed a lawsuit on behalf of five named plaintiffs and up to 30 unnamed individuals. All of them currently live in Encinitas except Nichols.
In the mayor’s counter-complaint, however, her attorneys argue that by telling The Coast News about the terms of the settlement agreement in May (when the newspaper’s article on the subject was published), Curran and Nichols had willfully violated the confidentiality clauses contained in the agreement.
The original agreement between Blakespear and the residents who filed the lawsuit reads, “Information regarding this settlement payment shall remain confidential except for any legally required disclosures.” In a separate section, the document specifies that “The terms of this agreement shall remain confidential except as set forth by the parties in this agreement.”
The countersuit asserts that The Coast News clearly identifies Curran and Nichols as having informed the newspaper about the specific terms of the settlement agreement in violation of the confidentiality clauses. Blakespear’s attorneys argue these terms were intentionally leaked to discredit the mayor politically.
“The disclosure (by Curran and Nichols) constitutes a material breach of the settlement agreement,” the cross-complaint reads. “Their actions also demonstrate that they entered into the settlement agreement in bad faith and acted unfairly to interfere with Mayor Blakespear’s right to receive the benefits of the settlement agreement. Their disclosure, made immediately after the parties executed the settlement agreement, is part of a long-standing political attempt to discredit Mayor Blakespear and her candidacy for the California State Senate.”
Not only was the breach of confidentiality evident in the May 17th article by The Coast News, but it was also confirmed by text messages exchanged between Sabellico and one of the newspaper’s reporters, the mayor’s attorneys claim.
Nichols and Curran both vehemently denied Blakespear’s allegations made in the countersuit.
“Mayor Blakespear’s accusation that I leaked our settlement agreement to the Coast News is blatantly false,” Nichols said. “Even the Coast News will attest to this. The fact that she wants to sue her residents over something so false shows how unethical she is.”
The Coast News obtained an email from Curran to Richard Rios, Blakespear’s lead attorney in the case, sent on Thursday lambasted Rios for filing the cross-complaint, reiterating his belief that the mayor had acted unethically and illegally in breaking the original settlement agreement.
“Mr. Rios, I have been advised you filed a very ill-advised SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) cross-complaint in the Nichols et al. complaint against (Blakespear), including my firm and me personally,” Curran wrote in the email. “Bad move, you have been around long enough that you should know better. With respect to the comments the Coast News attributes to me, I did not disclose the specific terms and conditions of the settlement agreement. I did tell the Coast News that settlement agreements of this type, concerning First Amendment violations by a government actor, typically included stopping the protected 1st Amendment infringing misconduct, a public apology and a financial component, pretty common knowledge, and in this case, protected speech.”
Curran and DiMare both argue the settlement agreement was already null and void after Blakespear issued her controversial May 21 apology, rendering the confidentiality clause unenforceable.
Some community members reacted with dismay to the news of the mayor’s action against residents. Former Encinitas Mayor Jerome Stocks said Blakespear’s actions seemed petty and retaliatory.
“I find the whole thing very distasteful. I think it brings discredit to all elected officials when an elected official files a lawsuit against their own constituency,” Stocks said. “When somebody of authority tries to use the courts to quash opinion, that’s problematic. She is a mayor running for state senate and has the backing of the Democratic party machinery, and now that power is being used to sue residents for criticizing her? I’m very uncomfortable with that — it seems ill-advised for elected officials to sue their constituents, and the basis of this lawsuit is that she doesn’t like that they disagree with her. This isn’t assault and battery or fraud. It’s ‘I don’t like what you’re saying about me.’ It’s very unfortunate that this is occurring.”
Bruce Ehlers, a former city planning commissioner and District 4 candidate, said the mayor’s litigation against the residents seems like a shameless attempt to punish critics and silence citizens unhappy with the current city government.
“The fundamental problem we have here is the silencing of opposing opinions,” Ehlers said. “She consistently tries to shut down any contrary opinion that might affect her ambition for state senate. For her, it’s ambition over everything else. People in the community disagree with her, and she doesn’t want to hear it; she doesn’t want it out there — she demands complete allegiance. I find the combination of suppressing opposing views and doing things out of public sight objectionable.”
Conversely, other community members believe the mayor’s counterclaim was a legitimate response to what they characterized as a politically motivated lawsuit.
Marco Gonzalez, attorney at Encinitas-based Coast Law Group, said from a legal standpoint, it was apparent the residents suing Blakespear had violated the terms of their legal agreement with the mayor by leaking confidential information to the media.
“I think the plaintiffs have a couple of big problems,” Gonzalez said. “There’s the breach of confidentiality in the settlement agreement–they breached both the express terms of the contract and the lawyer’s ethical duty to his client. But I think their case in chief, namely that the mayor’s compliance with the settlement agreement was faulty, will never hold up in court. The agreement doesn’t obligate her to pay the settlement fees from a particular account; objectively, her statement qualifies as an apology as required by the agreement. Their continuation of this lawsuit was a political stunt and nothing more.”
Councilman Tony Kranz said he was disappointed the legal dispute had escalated further and agreed with Gonzalez that the impetus for the lawsuit against Blakespear was political.
“I don’t know who will ultimately be successful in this case,” Kranz said. “The sad part is that the only people who gain from this are the lawyers. This should not have been an issue, and I understand some people felt being blocked by Catherine was worth litigating. But in the end, it’s just unfortunate that it got to point with everybody suing everybody.”
She really is a piece of something. On the bright side, Biden has spent an entire day trying top bail Levin out, and a major reason is that Catherine’s a drag on the ticket thanks to their often overlapping districts. I’ve never voted for a Republican until now, but I’m voting against her.
Benedict Blakespear needs to be retired from politics. A disgusting human being
Typical Blakespear, suing her own residents with the victim mentality. It’s not her money that she’s spending on attorneys, it’s her donors money. It’s pretty apparent that her counter claim is a huge stretch. Just one more reason not to vote for this candidate.