A communications professional sued along with Los Angeles County and District Attorney George Gascón by a veteran prosecutor who alleges he has been defamed for being an outspoken critic of Gascón’s reform directives argues in new court papers that he should be dismissed from the case on free-speech grounds.
Deputy District Attorney Jon Hatami‘s lawsuit also alleges harassment against Maxwell Szabo, whose attorneys filed an anti-SLAPP motion on Wednesday, stating in their court papers that Hatami is a limited-purpose public figure who has also failed to demonstrate malice or harassment in his pleadings.
Among Hatami’s high-profile assignments is the case of Jose Cuatro and Maria Juarez, a Palmdale couple charged with murder and torture in the death of their 4-year-old son, Noah. He also was one of two prosecutors in the trial of Isauro Aguirre and Pearl Fernandez for the woman’s 8-year-old son Gabriel’s death.
When Gascón was sworn into office in December 2020, he promised to stop enforcing California’s three-strikes law, end use of the death penalty and create a review board to hold law enforcement officials more accountable. As Hatami has continued to be critical of Gascón’s changes, the alleged hostile work and retaliation toward him has continued, according to his suit filed in September 2021.
“Gascón has deliberately denied assigning (Hatami) to complex child abuse and murder cases within his jurisdiction as punishment for not going along with his directives,” the suit alleges. “This in turn impacts (Hatami’s) work and ability to prove himself for desired promotions.”
Szabo, who also is an attorney, consulted for the committee to elect Gascón through the 2020 election and Gascón’s subsequent transition into office. As part of his job, Szabo explained and defended Gascón’s policy proposals and directives. Hatami alleges that Szabo, acting as a spokesperson for Gascón’s office, defamed the plaintiff with four statements: calling Hatami a “rogue DA” on Twitter, stating on television that Hatami’s “delusional theories raise questions as to one’s fitness to practice law,” called Hatami a “liar” during a 2021 Whittier City Council meeting and referred to a photo of Hatami on television as a “portrait of fearmongering.”
Szabo’s anti-SLAPP — Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation — motion was brought under a state law intended to prevent people from using courts, and potential threats of a lawsuit, to intimidate those who are exercising their First Amendment rights. Szabo’s attorneys maintain that because Hatami is at minimum a limited-purpose public figure, the part of the plaintiff’s case against their client should be dismissed on free-speech grounds. Szabo’s attorneys state in their court papers that, among other things, Szabo’s retweeted someone else’s original tweet referring to a “rogue DA” and that the statement does not mention Hatami. The Szabo lawyers also say their client’s comment during the Whittier City Council meeting was privileged.
Even if a judge concludes that the four alleged Szabo statements were defamatory, each is “constitutionally protected as opinion or rhetorical hyperbole,” Szabo’s attorneys further argue in their court papers. For example, calling Hatami, who has talked openly about defying Gascón, a “rogue DA” is a matter of protected opinion and hyperbole, Szabo’s attorneys argue in their court papers. Even if Szabo had said directly that Hatami was a “portrait of fearmongering” — a statement Szabo does not concede making — such a comment “in the context of disputes concerning the safety and efficacy of the DA’s policies would be protected opinion or hyperbole,” Szabo’s attorneys maintain in their court papers.
“Hatami’s allegations repeatedly reinforce the context here: Hatami is a vocal and open critic of Gascón and his policies, whereas Szabo is a staunch defender of Gascon and his policies,” according to the court papers of Szabo’s lawyers, who further argue that the courts have repeatedly held that calling someone a liar is not actionable.
A hearing on Szabo’s anti-SLAPP motion is scheduled July 17 before Judge Stephanie M. Bowick.