A PLETHORA OF SLAPP LAWSUITS
by Gloria Grening Wolk MSW
When I became a consumer advocate and author who exposed fraud in the viatical and life settlements industry I did not have a clue it would result in being SLAPPed with a series of lawsuits. Today, most of the principals of these companies are (a) in prison, (b) defending themselves against criminal indictments, or (c) under federal investigation. Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs) are lawsuits brought against those who communicate with their government or speak out on issues of public interest. SLAPP filers don’t go to court seeking justice. Rather, SLAPPs are intended to intimidate those who disagree with them or their activities by draining the target’s financial resources. SLAPPs are effective because even a meritless lawsuit can take years and many thousands of dollars to defend. Following is a summary of the years I struggled to preserve my First Amendment rights against plaintiffs with massive war chests.
The First SLAPP Lawsuit: Life Partners Inc.
In 1997 my first book about the viatical settlement industry was released to the public. It was intended to advise terminally ill people about the abuse and fraud that could victimize them, when they sold their life insurance. Aware that many concepts were new to most readers, and most readers were suffering serious, disabling illness, I intentionally cut compound sentences to single ideas.
One chapter was written differently–as a story. It was entitled, “Brian Pardo: Grateful for AIDS.” The title referred to the founder and CEO of Life Partners, Inc. of Waco, Texas, one of the largest viatical and life settlement firms. Among the reasons for the title: Pardo’s new viatical business enriched him after his previous business venture landed him in hot water and then bankruptcy.
The previous business, a solar utility company, was charged in 1989 by the SEC with financial fraud. The case settled out of court, with Pardo promising he would never again violate securities laws. Three years later Pardo’s new viatical company, Life Partners Inc. (LPI) was thriving, he was living in a mansion in Texas, he employed and paid substantial salaries to his wife and daughter and, in time, his son-in-law, and he was again violating securities laws.
In 1992 Pardo and LPI were issued cease and desist orders by North Dakota Securities Commissioner Glenn Pomeroy for an investment scheme that violated state securities law and disclosure requirements.
The Need for a Federal Anti-SLAPP Statute
SLAPP suits threaten the First Amendment rights of defendants, are expensive to defend, and may deprive the public of essential information. Equally important: SLAPP suits drain resources from our courts. Neither state nor federal courts can afford the time and expense of litigating lawsuits that have no merit.
Life Partner’s SLAPP began in January 1999 and was dismissed June 30, 2000. By then I was defending another SLAPP, this one filed by Accelerated Benefits Corporation in state court in Broward County, Florida. At the same ABC filed a similar SLAPP suit against Kiplinger’s Personal Finance, based on an article about viatical settlements in which they referred to my books and website as “a one-stop resource.”
The following year, 2000, when ABC’s principals, Jess and Keith LaMonda, realized they were losing these lawsuits, they filed new defamation lawsuits: one against Kiplinger’s and another against me. This time they filed in Orange County, Florida. They knew I had a Florida attorney—hired because of their first lawsuit. They did not contact him, they did not serve him with the new complaint, and they filed for a default.
Their attorney wrote up the order for the judge to sign. Obviously, it was submitted for signature on a day when the judge rushed through dozens of seemingly simple orders and did not read the text. The text prohibited me from selling my first book anywhere in the world, including through the internet. The LaMonda brothers sent the order to my web host and told him to shut down the web site. He did—until days later, July 4, 2000, when the state of Florida issued orders against ABC, alleging fraud.
My Broward County attorney drove four hours to Orange County and informed the judge about the situation. The judge was furious. Even if he agreed that my books should not be sold, he had no jurisdiction outside of Florida. It was clear the LaMondas and their attorney had tricked him. The judge quickly dismissed that lawsuit.
Five years later, in 2005, the Department of Justice indicted the LaMonda brothers. They were found guilty in 2007 and sentenced to twenty years (C. Keith LaMonda) and thirteen years (Jesse LaMonda). In 2006 the SEC sued their companies and placed them in receivership.
Then there is the infamous Mutual Benefits Corporation. When I wrote about this company I used their name, sometimes abbreviating it as MBC. Their SLAPP suit was filed in federal court in south Florida in May 2003. They charged me with trademark infringement—even though their trademark was not registered with Florida nor with the federal government, even though they claimed their name and initials were their trademarks. How can anyone warn about a company without using their name? This seemed too silly to file, but it was filed and it was litigated.
Again, I hired an attorney. One year later MBC dismissed their suit. The following year the SEC shut down MBC. Then the Department of Justice indicted the principals and an array of others, including attorneys. Other than the principals, all who were indicted are now in prison. The principals continue to battle the criminal lawsuit.
In 2001 Scott Wilbanks, a viatical broker, filed a SLAPP suit against me in state court in San Francisco—and included as co-defendant my web host service. It echoed Life Partner’s complaint, stating nothing more than “defamation,” and making no effort to establish jurisdiction.
This time I hired bottom-of-the-barrel lawyers, believing their false claim of familiarity with California’s anti-SLAPP statute. They did not try to learn; they never contacted any First Amendment organization for advice; they blew it. That SLAPP dragged on for four years before it settled. Today, Wilbanks no longer is in the viatical industry by his choice.
Every government action against these companies was too late to benefit me. Because I am stubborn, because no on else takes the risk of exposing unindicted con artists, and because I am proud of our First Amendment I will not be silenced.
But until we have a federal anti-SLAPP statute, these meritless lawsuits will continue to consume court resources at an alarming rate. Nothing else will deter SLAPPers. Their deep pockets allow them to drag out litigation in order to run up costs to the defendant—and they write off their own legal costs as a business expense.
When consumer advocates are at risk, the public is at risk. If we are silenced by the economics of defending a meritless lawsuit, the public will suffer from the dearth of information needed to avoid becoming victims.
For more information about anti-SLAPP legislation, please visit www.anti-slapp.org .