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Four years after a courtroom victory, Mary Shea could pay dearly for a celebratory press release. The Oakland attorney and her counsel appeared before San Francisco’s First District Court of Appeal on Tuesday, hoping to convince the justices to dismiss a defamation suit filed against her by Longs Drug Stores. The company sued Shea, who had won $300,000 for six former employees, after she issued a post-verdict statement accusing the company of having failed to respond to employee complaints even after one distraught woman had committed suicide. Shea argues that the statements fall within the state’s litigation privilege. But on Tuesday, the First District justices seemed no more sympathetic than the trial court judge who dismissed her anti-SLAPP motion. Justice Laurence Kay offered the first discouraging words when he asked Shea’s lawyer, Tyler Paetkau, why the 1993 suicide of Koreen Brigman was relevant to the press release when jurors had not been allowed to hear about it at trial. “How did it have to do with litigation in which that evidence was precluded?” Kay asked. Neither Brigman nor her heirs were parties to the underlying suit, which was filed in 1998 on behalf of nine former employees who claimed they had been subjected to severely abusive interrogations for allegedly stealing from the company. All were fired. Jurors ruled against three of the ex-employees but awarded the remaining six $50,000 each. The verdicts were later overturned on appeal. Immediately after the jury trial, Shea, owner of Shea Law Offices, claimed victory in a press statement. “We were always in this to get Longs to stop abusing employees,” she wrote. “They did not take action after a woman who had been interrogated committed suicide, or after they had received dozens of other complaints.” In their court papers, Longs’ lawyers at Oakland’s Filice Brown Eassa & McLeod argued that Shea had ignored evidence that Brigman — an employee of Longs vendor Nu Shades Inc. — took her life for reasons “totally unrelated” to the interrogation. A wrongful death suit filed by Brigman’s husband against Longs was dismissed, they pointed out. On Tuesday, partner Paul Johnson continued the attack by arguing that Shea was guilty of defamation per se in that she used suits and declarations by Brigman’s loved ones to suggest that Longs caused the suicide. Longs asked for a retraction, he said, “but Shea made no retraction, which led to this action.” Shea’s lawyer said Longs was accusing his client of defamation by implication. He argued that Shea did not intend to suggest that Longs had caused Brigman’s suicide. “All the evidence Longs has submitted only raised a possibility that [Shea] intended to convey that intent,” said Paetkau, a partner in Bingham McCutchen’s East Palo Alto office. “There is not sufficient evidence to allow a reasonable jury to find that Ms. Shea meant to convey that.” When Justice Kay asked how the suicide could be connected to the other employees’ suits, Paetkau said it was “rationally related” and had been admitted at trial for impeachment purposes. “Not the suicide,” Kay interjected. “It was not admitted at trial.” “The word was not admitted,” Paetkau acknowledged. “The fact too,” Kay said. “So again, how was it related to that litigation if it was not admitted?” Paetkau in his briefs had argued that Shea had simply been exercising her First Amendment rights and that the press release taken as a whole was true. Throughout the 20-minute hearing, Shea sat quietly at the back of the courtroom, looking increasingly uncomfortable as the argument seemed to go against her. Neither she nor Paetkau wanted to comment after the hearing. The case is Longs Drug Stores California Inc. v. Shea Law Offices, A101448.

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