A reporter sued by Katie Hill after co-authoring a story featuring nude photos of the former congresswoman is entitled to more than $80,000 in attorneys’ fees and costs, a judge said in a tentative ruling issued Wednesday.
On April 8, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Yolanda Orozco found that reporter Jennifer Van Laar, in writing for the Daily Mail, had shown the photos were matters of legitimate interest involving a public official because they addressed Hill’s character and qualifications for her position.
The judge dismissed Van Laar as a defendant in Hill’s revenge porn case on First Amendment grounds, opening the door for Van Laar to seek attorneys’ fees and costs. Van Laar asked for about $120,340 to compensate her lawyers for their work in preparing the dismissal motion, a related discovery motion and the motion for attorneys’ fees itself.
In her tentative ruling, Orozco said the number requested by Van Laar’s lawyers was “excessive and therefore unreasonable” and that a fair amount would be just under $84,000. But Orozco also rejected arguments by Hill’s attorneys that leniency be showed to their client because she was a well-meaning plaintiff seeking to determine the scope of a new statute, the revenge porn law.
“Contrary to (Hill’s) arguments otherwise, case law clearly holds that an award of such reasonable attorney fees is mandatory,” Orozco wrote. “While the court has the discretion to reduce the fees based on whether or not the court deems the fees reasonable, the court is obligated to award reasonable attorneys’ fees.”
Orozco is scheduled to hear arguments on the fees Thursday before issuing a final decision.
Orozco previously said she was sympathetic to the impact of the publications of photos on Hill, who suffered other setbacks when other media defendants, including the Daily Mail, also were dismissed as defendants on free-speech grounds.
“This is an unfortunate situation for Ms. Hill, no question about it,” Orozco said. She called the decision by Hill’s ex-husband, Kenneth Heslep, to make the images available to the media, “tragic and unnecessary.” Heslep remains a defendant in the suit.
According to media reports, Van Laar was a campaign adviser to former Rep. Steve Knight, R-Palmdale, who was unseated by Hill in 2018. A story co-written by Van Laar that appeared in the Daily Mail in October 2019 featuring nude photos of Hill with a female campaign staffer followed a series of reports published on RedState.com, a conservative political site that lists Van Laar as its deputy managing editor.
The 33-year-old Hill submitted a lengthy sworn declaration in opposition to Van Laar’s dismissal motion.
“Van Laar knew, or should have known, that I had a reasonable expectation that the images would remain private,” Hill said. “Van Laar refers to herself as a journalist in her declaration.
“I believe that California’s law against the nonconsensual distribution of intimate images is widely known and believe that someone that describes themselves as a journalist would be aware of it too.”
Hill’s lawsuit was filed Dec. 22. She alleges in her court papers that she lived in fear that if she ever tried to leave, Heslep would kill them both and their animals. Hill and Heslep officially divorced in October.
Hill, a Democrat, resigned in 2019 after the nude photos were published and news emerged that she had a three-way relationship with her husband and a campaign staffer. She was also accused of having an affair with a member of her congressional staff. Hill publicly blamed her then-husband for the release of the photos. Speaking in Congress in 2019, she decried a “misogynistic culture that gleefully consumed my naked pictures, capitalized on my sexuality and enabled my abusive ex to continue that abuse, this time with the entire country watching.”
The 25th Congressional District includes portions of the Antelope Valley. The seat had long been held by Republicans until Hill’s 2018 victory over Knight. After Hill’s resignation, Republican Mike Garcia defeated Democratic Assemblywoman Christy Smith in a special election to fill the final 7 1/2 months of the term. Garcia then beat Smith again by 333 votes in November’s election for a full two-year term.
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