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The California Supreme Court ruled unanimously Thursday that attorney fees could be awarded for libel and slander only if a peace officer or his employer is named as a party in the suit. “The statute’s well-documented history leaves no serious doubt that the Legislature intended to adopt a rule that would affect only cases involving peace officers,” Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar wrote. “Nothing in the legislative history,” she continued, “suggests a broader intent to make attorneys fees available in libel and slander actions generally.” San Francisco solo Craig Martin sued Richard Szeto and Anthony Lincoln after the two men advised business associates that Martin was “doing cocaine” and wouldn’t be able to provide them with competent representation. After the case was dismissed, Szeto and Lincoln sought attorney fees under Code of Civil Procedure � 1021.7. Martin argued that the statute in question applies only to slander and libel actions involving peace officers. San Francisco Superior Court Judge A. James Robertson II dismissed Szeto and Lincoln’s motion on the ground that they had failed to show that Martin hadn’t acted in good faith or with reasonable cause. In reversing in 2001, San Francisco’s 1st District Court of Appeal held that the state statute allowed courts to award fees not only to peace officers and their employers, but also in libel and slander actions brought by anyone. That directly contradicted Planned Protective Services v. Gorton, 200 Cal.App.3d 1, a 1988 ruling by San Diego’s 4th District. On Thursday, the Supreme Court found the 4th District ruling more persuasive. State courts can award attorney fees in libel and slander suits “only when a peace officer or an officer’s public employer is a party, and when the action arises out of the performance of an officer’s duties,” Werdegar wrote. The court, however, also rejected one holding in Gorton, saying the 4th District erred in saying that fees could be awarded only when a peace officer or his employer is a defendant. The legislative history and letters to the governor make it clear, the court said, that fees could be awarded to citizens who have been sued for defamation by peace officers. “These letters consistently explain,” Werdegar wrote, “that [an] amendment was offered to make the bill reciprocal, by providing that anyone defending against a frivolous action for libel or slander brought by a peace officer would also be able to receive an award of attorney fees.” Martin couldn’t be reached for comment. Neither could Ron Cottingham, president of the Sacramento-based Peace Officers Research Association of California. One of the defense lawyers, Eric Schenk, an associate in the Law Offices of Mattaniah Eytan in Corte Madera, said the ruling would ensure that more cases get “tossed into the malicious prosecution bin.” “Conceivably,” he said, “the Legislature can take another look at this matter, but obviously we’re disappointed.” However, Schenk said the court’s decision came as no big surprise, considering the pointed questions the justices tossed Schenk’s boss, Eytan, during the December arguments in San Jose. “As soon as the opening bell sounded at the oral argument,” he said, “it was clear what was going to happen.” The ruling is Martin v. Szeto, 04 C.D.O.S. 1389.

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