Appeals court sides with Karbassi over Soria in campaign mailer defamation battle

A defamation lawsuit centering over a campaign mailer from 2022 will proceed after an appeals court ruling sided with the northwest Fresno lawmaker.

A motion to strike down a lawsuit filed by Fresno City Councilman Mike Karbassi against Asm. Esmeralda Soria (D–Fresno) has been vacated.

The Fifth District Court of Appeal issued a ruling on Tuesday striking the anti-SLAPP ruling that Soria had won against Karbassi to throw out their lawsuit over campaign mailers. 


The backstory: Two years ago Karbassi and Soria served together on the Fresno City Council and ran against each other in the June 2022 primary election for Assembly District 27. 

  • While Soria ended up advancing to the general election and winning, shortly before the primary she issued a double-sided campaign mailer to some voters that highlighted Karbassi’s taxpayer money expenditures and his hiring of a consultant who had been found guilty of assault against a college student. 
  • The mailer’s had Karbassi’s picture next to statements “Guilty of battery against a student,” “Arrested and cited for assault and battery of a 19-year-old female student” and “Was I wrong? Yes, I touched her when she didn’t want to be touched.”
  • Karbassi filed a lawsuit against Soria, but it was thrown out when Soria filed an anti-SLAPP motion. 

The big picture: Tuesday, the Fifth District Court of Appeal vacated the anti-SLAPP motion and sent the lawsuit back to Fresno County Superior Court for a new order. 

  • The appellate court sided with Karbassi on his issue with the consultant-statement claim. Karbassi had argued that “no reasonable reader would take the [criminal] allegations as referring to [him].” Soria argued that Karbassi’s interpretation only makes sense if the side with Karbassi’s photo is read in isolation and that the mailer “made it very clear” that Karbassi’s conduct in paying the consultant was inexcusable, not that Karbassi committed the crime. 
  • The appellate court found that the mailer does not make it very clear that the criminal allegations refer solely to the consultant and not to Karbassi. 
  • Karbassi demonstrated that his complaint has the requisite minimal merit to proceed against the anti-SLAPP motion, the court ruled. 

What they’re saying: “We believe the fact average readers actually understood the mailer in a defamatory manner is circumstantially relevant to Soria’s state of mind in publishing the mailer, i.e., it is evidence Soria intended some readers to misattribute a confession, and criminal conduct, to Karbassi,” the ruling reads. 

  • The ruling continues, “There is no doubt Soria knew Karbassi had not committed a crime but nonetheless published the mailer in this exact format.” 
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