EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been updated to include quotes from Robert Leahy, Michelle Gomez’s former employee, and Carlos Alcala, chair of the Chicano Latino Caucus.
OCEANSIDE — A judge has dismissed a former city council candidate’s defamation suit against her former workers who claimed she hadn’t paid them.
Last year, Michelle Gomez was a candidate for Oceanside City Council’s District 4 seat. She and several other candidates lost to Councilman Peter Weiss, the city’s former mayor.
Last year, several people who worked for Gomez’s 2018 supervisor campaign alleged that she still owed them money for services.
One of those people was Robert Leahy, who was contracted to post signs for Gomez in 2018. He filed a wage claim against Gomez last summer.
Gary Gartner, a San Diego consultant who worked as a campaign strategist and fundraiser for Gomez, claimed the former candidate still owed him $2,500.
Gomez fired back by filing a defamation lawsuit in August 2020 against Leahy, Gartner and several others who went public with claims that Gomez hadn’t paid them. She complained that the defendants had provided express and implied defamatory statements about her to local newspapers and media outlets.
Not long after, defendants Katherine Hogue, Dan Castillo, Matt Duburg and Luca De Sanctis Barton were dismissed from the suit. Defendants Leahy, Gartner, former campaign field director Rachel Bartlett and The Line Printing Company out of Chula Vista remained named in the suit.
Leahy filed an anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) motion to strike against Gomez in return. An anti-SLAPP motion requires a two-step process: the defendant must first establish that the challenged cause of action is defined as “protected activity,” and the plaintiff must then back up her original claim of defamation.
In late January, Judge Cynthia A. Freeland granted Leahy’s motion to strike, finding that Leahy had satisfied his burden of demonstrating that the allegedly defamatory statements fell under-protected activity. Gomez failed to do the same.
“The court finds that Plaintiff fails to satisfy her burden,” Freeland’s ruling on the anti-SLAPP motion explains.
The anti-SLAPP motion required that the plaintiff, Gomez, be a public figure. Gomez had argued that she was neither a public figure nor a limited-purpose public figure.
Still, the court determined that Gomez was a limited-purpose public figure at the time Leahy made his allegations against her, which means in order to win a defamation suit, she needed to demonstrate that Leahy made his statements with actual malice.
According to court documents, Gomez had submitted “copious evidence” Leahy had engaged in misconduct and hindered the California Democratic Party Veterans Caucus in 2019.
During a meeting on Aug. 24, 2019, Gomez alleged Leahy, while serving as the Veterans Caucus and Chicano Latino Caucus’s first vice-chair, “appeared intoxicated, exposed inappropriate body parts, insulted the chair of the Latino Caucus” and “threw an object at another board member.”
Leahy denies the allegations, saying that Gomez wasn’t at the August 2019 meeting. Furthermore, Leahy said he was never the first vice-chair of the Chicano Latino Caucus, as Gomez asserts in her complaint (Leahy only served as first vice-chair of the Veterans Caucus).
Carlos Alcala, chair of the Chicano Latino Caucus, denied Gomez’s accusations in a message to The Coast News: “The statements attributed to the plaintiff (Gomez) describing conduct involving the Chicano Latino Caucus are false. I do not know the plaintiff’s motive for making these false statements.”
Then in March 2020, Leahy used the Veterans Caucus email account to send a resignation letter out to members. In the letter, he stated Gomez and others had violated caucus bylaws and due process; that Gomez was only using her position to advance her political career; had failed to pay her employees for work in 2018 but paid her husband who had also worked for her instead; that there was an open complaint against her with the Fair Political Practices Commission, and that her husband wasn’t a member of the California Democratic Party in violation of Veterans Caucus bylaws.
According to Leahy, everything that Gomez accused him of is false.
Gomez also argued to the court that Leahy held a grudge against her after she brought to light his alleged unethical conduct during his time in the CVC. Still, according to the court, this is insufficient to permit the conclusion that Leahy made his statements knowing they were false or made with reckless disregard for their truth.
Because she failed to meet her burden, the anti-SLAPP motion was granted and the case was dismissed against the remaining parties.
“I feel vindicated that the judge agreed that Gomez’s lawsuit against me was not valid,” Leahy said. “I am not ready to comment on the bigger, specific, numerous false statements which Michelle Gomez continues to state about me in letters, emails and litigation.
“In my opinion, she committed perjury in court documents,” he continued. “It’s just not worth continuing her current litigation over it just to prove it, especially with a favorable ruling from the court.”
Leahy started a GoFundMe page to help him pay for attorney fees. According to the page, Leahy has so far paid more than $6,700 out of pocket, “which has greatly devastated his financial situation.”
The GoFundMe page has so far raised $900 of its $10,000 goal, which would be used to support Leahy, Bartlett, Gartner and The Line Printing Company.
Leahy claims that Gomez is wrongfully suing him for more than $725 worth of wages that she owes him, which may turn into $5,000 due to mandated statutes for her delay in paying him. He also said she will likely have to pay for his attorney and court fees for the lawsuit as well.
Whether or not Gomez will have to pay for Leahy’s court and attorney fees will be determined at a motion hearing currently scheduled for June 11.
Gomez did not respond to The Coast News’ request for comment.