It’s not David versus Goliath. It’s more David taking on a gang of Goliaths.
David in this instance is former elementary school teacher Maura Larkins. Larkins, a quiet but crotchety, middle-aged resident of Lakeside, runs the relatively unknown education blog called The San Diego Education Report.
Playing Goliath is the law firm of Stutz Artiano Shinoff & Holtz. One of the firm’s chief clients is the San Diego County Office of Education, along with the 65 school districts that make up the agency’s Joint Powers Authority. Since 2009, the firm has earned more than $7.7 million defending both the districts and the San Diego County Office of Education.
The conflict has lasted for six years inside courtrooms at the San Diego Superior Courthouse. For the lawyers, it is a fight to silence an incessant blogger from publishing defamatory comments about the firm on her website. For Larkins, it is a fight for her First Amendment rights to free speech.
So far, Larkins appears to be losing.
“The case has been a huge gray cloud hovering over me,” Larkins says at a coffee house in downtown La Mesa. “It’s limited my freedom to do the other things I want to do. My family has been more severely affected than I have. They see Stutz as powerful and invulnerable and don’t believe I have any chance of prevailing.”
But Larkins remains persistent, much as she was in 2007, when she posted what lawyer Daniel Shinoff claims were personal attacks and defamatory comments about the law firm.
Those comments appeared in a 2007 blog post. In it, Larkins accused the firm of “a culture of misrepresentation and deception,” adding that “the firm clearly suffers from a lack of professionalism or lack of understanding of the law…. My own personal opinion is, if a public entity is doing business with Daniel Shinoff of Stutz, Artiano, Shinoff, and Holtz, that public entity is probably involved in dirty business.”
The dispute between Larkins and Shinoff’s law firm goes back to 2002, when Stutz Artiano Shinoff & Holtz defended the Chula Vista Elementary School District in a wrongful-termination lawsuit Larkins had filed.
Larkins lost that case but didn’t forget it. Neither did the firm.
On October 5, 2007, Stutz Artiano Shinoff & Holtz filed a defamation complaint against Larkins. The “publications by defendant…were made with malice, hatred, and ill will towards [Stutz Artiano Shinoff & Holtz], with a design and intent to injure [the firm and its] good name, its reputation, employment, and employability in the future,” reads the complaint.
The firm asked for a judgment of $100,000, saying that due to Larkins’s commentary, it suffered “embarrassment, humiliation, and significant economic loss in the form of lost wages and future earnings.”
In 2009, judge Judith Hayes agreed, ruling in favor of Shinoff and company. Judge Hayes prohibited Larkins from posting negative comments about the law firm. Larkins agreed, while insisting that she would not refrain from publishing facts about the attorneys.
But later that year, Larkins couldn’t hold her tongue, or stop her fingers from typing, when former San Diego County Office of Education employee Rodger Hartnett filed a wrongful-termination lawsuit. Hartnett was fired from his job after accusing his boss, a former attorney at the law firm, of showing preferential treatment to her former colleagues by assigning them the bulk of cases from the San Diego County Office of Education.
In the comments section of her website, in response to an online article on the lawsuit by former Voice of San Diego reporter Emily Alpert, Larkins wrote: “…Shinoff makes Vito Corleone look like an altar boy. Shinoff has destroyed the lives of many individuals and families; only God knows what his body count is.”
Shinoff and his partners filed a motion with the court. Judge Hayes agreed with the lawyers, fining Larkins $3000 and barring her from making any further mention of Stutz Artiano Shinoff & Holtz. “And I’m doing that not in an attempt to foreclose or eliminate [Larkins’s] right to free speech,” said the judge, “but because it is crystal clear to me at this point that she is unable or unwilling to modify her [websites] in any good-faith attempt to remove reference to that law firm. So we’re cutting it off at this point. No more reference to the law firm.”
Larkins, however, has not gone this entire time without a few legal victories. In 2011, an appellate court agreed that the earlier judgment violated Larkins’s First Amendment right to free speech. That victory was short-lived, and the case is now back in the hands of Judge Hayes, who was scheduled to hear it sometime this month. Meanwhile, Larkins continues to post articles on her website.
“It upsets my husband every time an envelope comes from Stutz. He doesn’t understand why I don’t just take down my website. But over the past decade I’ve learned that the rule of law is far less secure than I once thought, and if I don’t defend it, then I am guilty of aiding and abetting the elected officials and their associates who want to suspend it whenever it’s in their interest to do so.”
She adds, “The financial costs have been very burdensome. I had to use my credit card to pay for court costs and $3000 [in] sanctions given by judge Judith Hayes. I’m deep in debt, even after breaking into my paltry IRA account.”
Court fees continue to increase without any sign of either side backing down.
Larkins puts court fees (including the judgment) at $43,000, and that’s not counting the money spent on copies and filings.
As for the lawyers, they show no signs of letting Larkins off the hook. In an April 10 email, attorney Ray Artiano wrote: “In the complaint, we set forth a number of the defamatory statements which were made by Ms. Larkins.
“The court agreed, yet Ms. Larkins persisted in making more defamatory comments. When someone makes defamatory comments, and refuses to withdraw those comments, the remedy is to file a lawsuit such as the lawsuit which we filed. This is hardly a case of bullying. [Our law firm] is extremely proud of its reputation, and we will not tolerate the publication of untrue and defamatory comments, nor should we be expected to.”
Continued Artiano: “The reason for pursuing this lawsuit is obvious. Why this lawsuit is viewed by you as newsworthy is not. Unless you intend to be less than objective. We have no thought of ‘silencing our detractors.’ Those who want to express opinions are certainly entitled to do so. When comments expressing alleged facts are made, and those comments are untrue and made maliciously, action must be taken.”
A May 3 hearing was postponed. A new hearing date has not yet been set.