Political Life has obtained a copy of a $10,000 settlement agreement in a lawsuit involving Downey Council Member Catherine Alvarez and Public Works Commissioner Carlos Aranibar.
The lawsuit was filed by a Downey resident Vijay Patel, who identified himself in Court documents as a prosecutor for the City of Los Angeles. He previously served on Downey’s Personnel Advisory Board under former Council Member Rick Rodriguez, whom Alvarez replaced. Patel drew the spotlight to his person by penning an op-ed describing Alvarez’ possible conflicts of interest in the domain of rent control—her key issue according to her campaign literature. Aranibar, one of Alvarez’ Commissioners, wrote his own op-ed rebutting Mr. Patel.
Patel’s complaint against Alvarez and Aranibar
The basis of Patel’s claim against Alvarez and Aranibar involved the February 23rd 2021, meeting of the City Council, wherein Aranibar and two other speakers made controversial statements regarding Patel.
According to the complaint, filed in L.A. County Superior Court, during the non-agenda public comment on February 23rd, 2021, Aranibar stated that he knew of “allegations of domestic abuse,” and that Patel had “threatened a member of the Downey City Council with violence.” The complaint then said that, following Aranibar’s statement, another speaker spoke of Patel’s “record”, and a third speaker said Patel had a “case in 2018.” The complaint further alleged that the comments made against Patel were made “at the behest of Alvarez.”
Thus, the complaint says that Aranibar defamed Patel and that two other speakers then added to Aranibar’s comments. Yet, a review of the video will reveal to any viewer that Aranibar spoke after the two other speakers and did not himself accuse Patel of wrongdoing. Rather, Aranibar seemed to be concerned about the comments made by the other speakers.
If claims are factually inaccurate, why would the City pay out $10,000?
It is notable that Patel’s complaint contains a letter from Downey’s City Attorney, Yvette Abich Garcia, in which she describes Aranibar’s statements as the “actions as a private citizen.” Moreover, the letter made no reference whatsoever to Alvarez, who is named in the lawsuit. That is, the Downey City Attorney declined to defend her own clients—Council Member Alvarez and Commissioner Aranibar. This is not a typical course of action; public agencies defend their members, especially in such circumstances wherein the City is so clearly involved.
When Patel’s case came to the Closed Session of the City Council on April 27th, 2021, the City Attorney told the public that the Council had voted unanimously to “defend Council Member Alvarez,” suggesting that Alvarez pushed for representation by the City and was granted such representation; Yet, the City and its Attorney left Aranibar out of this arrangement.
Wider ramifications of City’s settlement
It is notable that the City of Downey, one of the wealthiest municipalities in Southeast L.A. County, was so easily willing to payout $10,000 to a plaintiff alleging that a Council Member had conspired with other speakers to defame his person—without providing any evidence for public scrutiny.
It is perhaps even more notable that Patel decided to settle, rather than show evidence of his claims in Court. After all, it is not a trivial matter for a Council Member to conspire to defame a member of the public. The rewards for proving such a conspiracy are likely to be considerable.
Judge grants anti-SLAPP motion
On September 2nd, 2021, a Judge considered Patel's declaration, but granted a motion by Aranibar’s attorney, Matthew Strugar, to file the case under California’s anti-SLAPP statute, effectively ending the case. This statute was enacted by the Legislature in response to the “disturbing increase in lawsuits brought primarily to chill the valid exercise of the constitutional rights of freedom of speech.” It protects members of the public against those who chose to file Strategic Lawsuit(s) Against Public Participation, and awards members of the public with attorney’s fees for their defense.
The statute seems to fit facts of the case: In Patel vs. Aranibar et al., an L.A. City Attorney claimed defamation, not by a government body but my regular members of the public who were speaking up during a public meeting. One Council Member, Downey’s Catherine Alvarez, was swept in under an alleged conspiracy between herself and Aranibar, her Commissioner—who the City decided preemptively not to defend. Other members of the public, who are not public figures, were also swept up in the defamation and conspiracy allegations.
Now that Patel has lost under anti-SLAPP statute, the case seems ready to recede into the background of Downey politics. Nonetheless, questions will linger as to the City’s curious treatment of the case: Early on, residents alerted our publication as to the suspicious editing of Patel’s speech at the February 23rd City Council meeting. And now there is a $10,000, taxpayer-funded settlement for a lawsuit that any legal observer should have known would be tossed out by the Court.
Members of the public can attend the next meeting of the Downey City Council on September 14th, 2021.
Political Life is a collective of citizen-journalists in Los Angeles County.