FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Marin County Superior Court Judge Haakenson Throws Out Frivolous Lawsuit filed by County of Marin against Friends of West Tam Valley’s Attorney Edward Yates.
On Friday, January 12, 2018, Marin County Superior Court Judge Paul Haakenson ruled in favor of attorney Edward Yates, striking a cross-complaint filed against him by the County of Marin, which the court found constituted a Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation (“SLAPP”) suit. SLAPP suits are illegal under California law.
In 2016, Friends of West Tam Valley (FWTV) hired local attorney Edward Yates to assist the community group in obtaining public records, regarding pending subdivision development applications in Tam Valley. While the County initially released some of the requested records, when the County ceased communicating about the records, Yates filed a suit on behalf of FWTV under the California Public Records Act. Instead of turning over the records, the County filed a harassing and meritless lawsuit against Yates, alleging that he violated the False Claims Act in his communications with the County about the public records.
“The cross-claim, which was essentially a separate lawsuit, was completely frivolous and merely an attempt to deter my clients from enforcing their rights to obtain public records from the County,” said Yates. Undeterred by the County’s harassment, Yates retained one of the state's premier open government attorneys, Kelly Aviles, to file an anti-SLAPP motion against the County.
Aviles said that the County's cross-compliant was made with the “intent to intimidate a group seeking public records” and “deprive it of effective legal counsel.” This aggressive strategy -- to harass attorneys who help the public enforce its rights -- will not be tolerated, especially when it is employed by local governments that are supposed to be working on the public’s behalf, not against it."
The County’s actions throughout, in dealing with FWTV, and their refusal to pay the petitioners legal fees, precluded attempts to settle the case and only served to drag out the proceeding and multiply the waste of Court’s time and taxpayer’s money.
In his decision, Judge Hakkenson ruled that Yates' actions in requesting County records was conduct that "arises from protected activity" and that the County failed to show a probability of prevailing on its allegations that Yates violated the False Claims Act or the State Bar Rules.
Aviles and Yates applaud Judge Hakkenson’s ruling as a clear indication that the County's attempts to intimidate and harass those seeking records will not be tolerated by the Court.
"This ruling is clearly a victory for community participation and open government in Marin County,” said Mr. Yates. “I hope the County will change its pattern of aggressively litigating public transparency claims by community groups and instead engage with groups and assist them as required by State Law and as good public policy dictates.”
FWTV’s Co-Chair, Lee Budish stated, “Friends of West Tam Valley started this effort in an attempt to understand the scope and possible environmental impacts of a potentially large scale development in Tam Valley. Friends hopes that due to Judge Hakkenson's decision, the County of Marin, including the Department of Public Works, will be much more transparent and assist Marin County residents who ask questions and seek answers.”
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In response to learning of the Court’s ruling, Lee Budish, Co-Chair of the Friends of West Tam Valley issued the following statement:
On behalf of Friends of West Tam Valley, we would like to thank Community Venture Partners for their assistance. We would also like to thank Ed Yates and Kelly Aviles for their expertise and persistence in advocating for our rights to engage in public participation.
Sixteen months ago, we submitted a request for public records; it has since been a long journey. Friends of West Tam Valley is a large grassroots community of active and concerned neighbors who wish to educate themselves and understand the details of a proposed large scale development that will potentially have a tremendous environmental impact on those of us in Tam Valley and all who use Highway 1 from Tam Junction to Muir Woods and Stinson Beach and beyond.
The proposed housing development on a steep hillside, in a Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) with documented landslides, adjacent to two tributaries of Coyote Creek with one-way egress to/from Highway 1 is the perfect recipe for an environmental disaster unless done properly with a comprehensive Environmental Impact Review (EIR) in accordance with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).
Friends of West Tam Valley hopes that the County of Marin and all of its agencies, including the Department of Public Works, will do everything in its power to accommodate the good citizens of Marin County as they continue to ask questions and seek answers.
Lee Budish has published several other articles on this subject, which can be found on the Marin Post at:
What's Happening In Your Backyard? Public Records Act: An Invaluable Tool
Public Comments On Notice of Public Scoping Session: Alta Way Extension Project Initial Study
Additional information about the County's SLAPP suit case can be found at:
Marin County's Retaliatory Cross Complaint to Limit Access to Public Records