Weed residents ‘SLAPPback’ at Sacramento law firm for role in Roseburg lawsuit
A long legal battle with many twists and turns continues to evolve as the Water for Citizens of Weed California group has appealed a judge’s dismissal of their “SLAPPback” countersuit against a law firm that once represented Roseburg Forest Products in a lawsuit against them.
WCWC alleges Roseburg’s (now dismissed) 2016 lawsuit against them and nine Weed residents, later dubbed the “Weed 9,” was a “SLAPP,” or Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation. They have now taken the next step by suing the Sacramento law firm Churchill White and two of its lead attorneys in a "SLAPPback" suit that alleges they “acted with malice when they absurdly sued nine community elders ... the day after they spoke at a city council meeting advocating that (Beaughan Springs) – their drinking water source – be saved,” said Lauren Regan, executive director of the Civil Liberties Defense Center, which is representing WCWC in the SLAPPback case.
The SLAPPback law “has rarely been used, and the Weed case stands to set important precedent,” Regan said in a press release, noting that California is one of the few states that has the law on its books.
“Our lawyers think we just had bad luck with a judge who did not seem at all familiar with SLAPP suits and how they are used and was not very familiar with California’s anti-SLAPP statute,” said Weed’s Bruce Shoemaker, a spokesperson for WCWC about the recent dismissal of their claim. “Our lawyers think we still have a strong case and can prevail ... but we will have to go through an extended process.”
A tangled web of lawsuits, dismissals, appeals
The case stems from a 2017 lawsuit Roseburg filed against the City of Weed and the Weed 9, alleging they had “clearly established rights” to Beaughan Springs.
WCWC fought back, alleging the lawsuit was intended to bully and silence them. They countered that WCWC and the Weed 9 should never have been named in Roseburg’s suit against the city, as it was an issue between the two entities.
The Public Participation Project defines a SLAPP as “damaging suits (that) chill free speech and healthy debate by targeting those who communicate with their government or speak out on issues of public interest ... SLAPPs are used to silence and harass critics by forcing them to spend money to defend these baseless suits. SLAPP filers don’t go to court to seek justice. Rather, SLAPPs are intended to intimidate those who disagree with them or their activities by draining the target’s financial resources.”
The Public Participation Project said SLAPPs are effective because even meritless lawsuits can take years and thousands of dollars to defend.
In 2017, Siskiyou County Superior Court Judge Karen Dixon agreed Roseburg’s suit was a SLAPP and dismissed the charges against WCWC and The Weed 9.
Roseburg then appealed the dismissal. In December of 2019 – after the City of Weed agreed to to settle the original lawsuit and acknowledge it has no ownership of water from Beaughan Springs, Roseburg agreed to withdraw their claims.
As part of the judgement, Roseburg agreed to pay the city $50,000 towards attorneys’ fees and costs incurred by the matter. Both the city and Roseburg waived the right to recover any additional fees or costs.
In April of 2020, WCWC, now represented by Regan and the CLDC, filed a “SLAPPback” countersuit against Churchwell White and two of its lead attorneys, alleging the firm maliciously prosecuted them.
In December, a Sacramento District Court judge ruled against WCWC and the Weed 9, and CLDC has appealed the ruling to the California Appeals Court.
A media spokesperson for Churchwell White did not return an email seeking comment on the issue.
It all comes back to water
Meanwhile, the City of Weed is still working to find a secure source of water, said city manager Tim Rundel.
“We’re currently working on resolving this matter without going through the court system,” Rundel said. “I’m hopeful that we will have an agreement soon that finally puts this issue to resent and is a win-win for all parties involved.”
WCWC said they are not giving up and are determined to ensure their voices are heard.
“When we were first sued, most of us had never heard of a SLAPP, we had no idea,” said Shoemaker. “But we soon connected with groups fighting against SLAPP suits all over the country and came to realize we were not alone, that this is a problem all over. And so we decided, on behalf of our group and communities everywhere, to fight back against these illegal acts of intimidation and to demand justice from Roseburg's lawyers. By fighting back we hope to make it harder for law firms to launch these types of attacks on local communities."
When asked why WCWC members have stuck with this issue for so long, the group’s president, 81-year-old Jim Taylor said, “When I heard, in 2016, that the future of our town's water was in danger I made a commitment, to myself and our community, that I would fight this water grab and not give up until we were successful. Five years later we are still fighting, but I see light at the end of the tunnel.”
Skye Kinkade is the editor of the Mt. Shasta Area Newspapers and the Siskiyou Daily News. She is a fourth generation Siskiyou County resident and has lived in Mount Shasta and Weed her entire life.