Paper wins award in suit against judge

Feature | October 18, 1994

Paper wins award in suit against judge

10/18/94

CALIFORNIA -- In late September, a Los Angeles legal newspaper's suit against a judge who called its employees into his chambers for questioning was settled by a court of appeals judge in a settlement conference with a $40,000 award for the newspaper, ending a two-year controversy.

The Los Angeles-area Metropolitan News- Enterprise reported that the suit its employees brought against Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Ricardo Torres was settled September 26 before an appeals court judge. The report also said that Torres, whose conduct was at issue in the case, said he did not agree with the settlement but entered no formal objection.

The case began in July 1992 when Torres, the court's presiding judge, reduced the number of the court's subscriptions to the News- Enterprise, according to the paper's editor and co-publisher, Roger M. Grace.

Grace said that two weeks later the newspaper asked three employees to circulate a mock memo to the other judges in the court house which appeared to be from Torres, calling the newspaper "contraband". The memo also said judges found with a copy of the newspaper would be transferred, offices would be searched, and the election of the next presiding judge was being suspended due to a "court emergency."

According to Grace, Torres found the memo and called the three News-Enterprise employees who were distributing it into his chambers for questioning, then threatened them with contempt proceedings. The contempt suit was dropped after the three employees signed a "letter of regret," according to Grace.

Torres then sued the paper and two of the employees for libel in Los Angeles Superior Court, but the court granted the defendants' motion to dismiss. Torres appealed, but the Fourth District Court of Appeals in San Diego agreed with the lower court and said judges are "fair game for satirists" and should expect lampoons. Grace said Torres' appeal to the state Supreme Court was denied.

In a settlement conference requested by both parties to end the lawsuits, Court of Appeals Justice Richard Aldrich granted a $40,000 settlement to the newspaper and the reporters in late September, according to a News- Enterprise story.

The settlement combined the damage awards in two separate cases filed against Torres by the newspaper and its employees over the last two years. With the agreement stating that neither party is at fault and no further suits would be filed concerning this matter, the county of Los Angeles will pay the damages.

Grace said Grace Communications, Inc., which owns the News-Enterprise, will receive $20,000 from the county for lost subscription revenue. He also said employee Scott Patrick, one of those detained by Torres who sued for false imprisonment, would receive $12,500 for damages, and Grace himself will receive $2,400 for Torres' comment to Editor & Publisher magazine that Grace had committed a "forgery" in the memo by using his initials in a circle. The remaining $5,100 of the settlement was for the newspaper's legal fees.

(Grace Communications Inc. v. Torres; Media counsel: Rex Heinke, Los Angeles)