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Oakland, Calif., attorney Mary Shea will face libel and slander claims for allegedly insinuating in a press statement that a major drug chain caused a woman’s suicide. On Tuesday, San Francisco’s 1st District Court of Appeal affirmed a judge’s decision denying Shea’s motion to strike under the state’s anti-SLAPP statute. The appeal court agreed that the claims by Longs Drug Stores don’t involve a public issue. “The suicide in question was a private matter until Shea publicized it,” Justice Laurence Kay wrote in a 14-page unpublished decision, “and the press release could not by itself turn the cause of that suicide into a public issue.” Justices Patricia Sepulveda and Maria Rivera concurred in the decision, which was reached one week after oral arguments. Shea, owner of Shea Law Offices, had sued Longs in 1998 on behalf of nine ex-employees who claimed that the company had engaged in abusive interrogation tactics after accusing them of stealing. All were fired. In 2001, Alameda County, Calif., jurors awarded six of the plaintiffs $50,000 apiece for intentional infliction of emotional distress. In 2003, the First District reversed. Immediately after the original jury verdict, however, Shea issued a press release celebrating her victory. “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.” Walnut Creek-based Longs, which owns 470 stores in six Western states, sued Shea, saying her reference to the 1993 suicide of Koreen Brigman was libelous and slanderous. Brigman, an employee of a Longs vendor, killed herself two days after being interrogated and signing a confession that she had taken or given others $261,000 in Longs merchandise. Her husband filed a wrongful death suit that was dismissed. Shea and her attorney, Tyler Paetkau, a partner in Bingham McCutchen’s East Palo Alto office, had argued that her comments were protected by the state’s litigation privilege. They also said she had not intended to accuse Longs of causing Brigman’s death. In rejecting Shea’s motion to strike, however, the 1st District said it agreed with Alameda County Superior Court Judge James Richman that such an inference “could be fairly drawn” from the press release. Neither Shea nor Paetkau could be reached for comment Tuesday. Neither could Longs’ lawyer, Paul Johnson, a partner in Oakland’s Filice Brown Eassa & McLeod. The ruling is Longs Drug Stores California v. Shea, A101448.

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