California appeals court upholds dismissal of libel lawsuit

Friday, April 9, 1999

LOS ANGELES — A former Republican consultant has no grounds to sue Mother Jones magazine for an article quoting two ex-wives as saying he beat them, a state appeals court says.

In a 2-1 decision, the 2nd District Court of Appeal on April 7 upheld a judge’s dismissal of Don Sipple’s $12.5 million libel suit under a state law intended to discourage meritless suits that chill free speech.

Known as the anti-SLAPP law, for Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, it entitles defendants to a quick dismissal, without extensive disclosure of evidence, and to recovery of lawyers’ fees from the plaintiff. Sipple was ordered to pay $45,000 for his opponents’ attorneys’ fees in Superior Court, said James M. Chadwick, a lawyer for the magazine and the writer.

The dissenting justice, John Zebrowski, said Sipple should be entitled to obtain more evidence and try to prove the defendants showed reckless disregard for the truth in portions of the article based on interviews rather than on records of court proceedings and sworn depositions.

Zebrowski said the majority was interpreting the anti-SLAPP law too broadly. Chadwick said, however, that the court recognized the law was meant to be applied broadly.

The ruling “vindicates Donald Sipple’s two ex-wives, who knew that they were going to be attacked” for renewing their accusations of abuse, Chadwick said.

Sipple’s lawyer, Gary Bostwick, could not be reached for comment.

Sipple, a nationally known consultant, worked on the presidential campaigns of Bob Dole and George Bush and on three of former Gov. Pete Wilson’s campaigns. He has emphasized campaign themes of character, values, and — as the court noted — the prevention and punishment of domestic violence.

He resigned as consultant for a New York congressional candidate in 1997 after publication of the Mother Jones article, which was based in part on allegations in a 1992 Missouri custody dispute between him and his first wife, Regina Sipple.

In court testimony, she and his second wife, attorney Deborah Steelman, both testified that he beat them. His son Evan, 14, also testified that Sipple struck him, but a court-appointed guardian recommended placement of Evan with Sipple. Joyce Sipple, his current wife, testified that he had never abused her in 15 years of marriage.

In an interview with Mother Jones writer Richard Blow, Sipple denied hitting or emotionally abusing either woman, and noted that neither had made such an accusation in earlier divorce proceedings.

The article also quoted from interviews with both ex-wives, with more details of alleged abuse; statements from their friends and relatives, who said the women had told them about being beaten; and a statement from Regina Sipple’s divorce lawyer, who said he saw bruises that she told him were the result of a beating by Sipple.

The court said the gist of the article was the accusations of wife-beating, which were made in court or legal depositions and therefore immune from lawsuit if reported accurately. The interviews, while more detailed, “did not … alter the substance of the privileged material,” said the opinion by Justice Michael Nott.

“The article was a fair and true report,” based on court and deposition testimony and interviews with both sides, said Nott, joined by Presiding Justice Roger Boren.

He also said the article was covered by the anti-SLAPP law because much of it was based on legal proceedings and all of it concerned domestic violence, “an extremely important public issue.”

As a public figure, Sipple was required to show a deliberate or reckless falsehood to win a libel suit, and failed to show he could do so even if he could obtain statements he sought from magazine employees and other witnesses, Nott said.

In dissent, Zebrowski said interviews quoted in the article contained statements that, if false, could have been more damaging than the legally privileged testimony, such as an allegation that Sipple called one ex-wife a vulgar name. Zebrowski also said the article was written in a way that made it hard to identify the sources of particular statements.

Sipple “had no opportunity to compel the production of evidence regarding the manner in which Blow conducted his investigation, possible editorial pressures to sensationalize or distort,” or other evidence that might have shown a reckless disregard of the truth, Zebrowski said.