Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant has been sued twice for defamation. It’s a distinction that comes with a price: maybe $300,000 in litigation costs — paid by the city, if it decides to defend her.
City Councilmember Kshama Sawant doesn’t mince words. It’s a trait that’s made her the only Seattle city official in recent memory to be sued for defamation. And, actually, it’s two such lawsuits.
Those also come with a price: an initial estimate from an outside counsel of $185,000 for litigation costs in just one of the lawsuits.
That suit is from Carl Haglund, a landlord who took issue with Sawant’s referring to him “as a ‘slumlord’ and as a ‘notorious slumlord.’ ” He’s suing both the city and Sawant.
One of the exhibits in his lawsuit includes what he says is a leaflet from the Sawant re-election campaign “with a picture of a rat with a name tag that read ‘Carl Haglund’ and captioned ‘Slumlord!’ ” The rat is standing on its hind feet and looks nasty.
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Sawant’s attorney, Dmitri Iglitzin, has asked the city “to defend and indemnify” her. The councilmember’s office said it had no comment.
The second lawsuit was brought by two Seattle police officers who claim she falsely declared they had committed a “brutal murder” in last year’s fatal shooting of Che Taylor — only to then have an inquest jury clear them of wrongdoing.
The officers’ lawsuit names just Sawant as the defendant and, by city charter, it’s up to Council President Bruce Harrell to recommend whether the city should defend Sawant, if she made the alleged statement “within the course and scope of employment.”
That decision is expected within the next week or so, and Harrell says he has no comment about the matter in the meantime.
As for an estimate of litigation costs for this second lawsuit, “I can’t predict exactly,” says Joe Groshong, an assistant city attorney and the city’s torts section director.
When the city gets sued, he gets to deal with the cases — figuring out costs, whether to get outside counsel and whether settling is better than going to trial.
Groshong was asked, well, would $300,000 total litigation costs for both lawsuits surprise him?
“I wouldn’t be surprised … ,” says Groshong.
Defend her and be sued, city told
In their lawsuit, Seattle police officers Scott Miller and Michael Spaulding sued Sawant, and not the city, saying they did not want “one red cent of public money.” They’re asking for damages “to be proven at trial,” and a public retraction of Sawant’s alleged statements.
They claim that in one instance five days after the shooting, “Sawant appeared before a crowd and media in front of the police department. This was not, they argue, official city council business, and certainly not a ‘legislative function.’ Sawant, however, implied awareness of inside factual information … she went on to pronounce Che Taylor’s death a ‘brutal murder’ and product of ‘racial profiling.’ ”
In one Facebook video dated Feb. 25, 2016, Sawant is seen at a downtown protest using a megaphone. One can hear talk about “the brutal murder of Che Taylor, the blatant murder at the hands of the police … I am here as an elected official … I am completely committed to holding the Seattle Police Department accountable …”
In a Jan. 9, 2017, video of a Seattle City Council briefing, she speaks of Taylor, “shot and killed by the Seattle Police Department … and it became a catalyst for the launching of the “Not This Time!” coalition, a grass-roots coalition attempting to move a statewide ballot initiative to make it possible to prosecute police officers who commit murder.”
Adam Rosenberg, the attorney for the officers, wrote to the city and said that if the city did decide to defend Sawant, “we would have no choice but to amend our complaint to add Seattle to the litigation.”
Landlord sues city, Sawant
In the Haglund case, both Sawant and the city were sued. Haglund’s attorney, Brad Andersen, wrote in the lawsuit that “many other city officials” began calling a new city ordinance barring landlords from raising rents on units in very poor condition the “Carl Haglund Law.”
“With total disregard of his legal, constitutional and privacy rights, the City took from Haglund one of the most prized things any person seeks; their reputation, character and right of privacy,” says the lawsuit.
One of the exhibits in Haglund’s lawsuit is what it says is Sawant campaign material that refers to “slumlords like Haglund and the pillaging hordes of profit-crazed developers.” Before filing the lawsuit, Haglund made a claim against the city for $25 million. In the suit, he’s also asking for a public retraction from Sawant.
The claim says that because of “public ridicule and shame,” Haglund “has been denied or shunned from trade and community organizations and faced difficulties with key business partners and lending institutions — who would want a relationship with someone the City had designated as the ‘notorious slumlord?’ ”
It’s up to Bruce Harrell
Harrell, as council president, can recommend the city defend Sawant on both, one or none of the lawsuits. Even in the Haglund lawsuit in which both the city and Sawant are named, the city can decide to defend itself and not to represent her.
In the Haglund case, Groshong says, the city was given an “initial proposed budget” by the K&L Gates law firm of $185,000 to defend the city. The cost would be about the same if it also defends Sawant, he says.
Outside counsel is brought in, says Groshong, when there might be ethical conflicts or when the staff is simply overloaded with work. Those lawyers, he says, charge anywhere from $240 an hour to in excess of $600 an hour (staff attorneys for the city earn from $56.62 to $87.96 an hour, although with overhead and benefits that cost is considerably greater).
If the city decides not to defend Sawant, “She’d be obligated to provide her own defense,” says Groshong.
In defending a lawsuit, the meter is always running — legal research, motions, discovery, preparing for a possible trial.
That meter has been on overdrive this year: Seattle is $12 million over budget so far in litigation costs; $16.35 million had been appropriated.
Groshong says there are a lot of variables in defending a lawsuit. “It’s possible that both cases go away in total expenses of less than six figures,” he said.
Of the two lawsuits, the one with the best chance in court is the one from Haglund, says Ron Collins, a law professor and First Amendment expert at the University of Washington.
The lawsuit from the police officers, he says, pits what the court could see as one public official against another.
“I don’t see how any court would get involved absent some showing of malice,” he says.
As for the Haglund case, says Collins, the landlord would not only have to satisfy the legal standard for defamation, “but the biggest is, he has to prove economic damages.”
Maybe he’s been hurt in his ability to get a loan, says Collins.
“How does that translate into dollars?”
If Haglund has trouble renting units, he’ll have to prove it was attributable to Sawant’s statements, says Collins.
In recent years, there has been only one case in which the city litigated on behalf of a council member.
That resulted in a $400,000 settlement in 2016 with a bicyclist struck by former Seattle City Councilmember Sally Clark while she was driving to a speaking engagement. Clark’s personal insurance covered $25,000 and the city was on the hook for the remaining $375,000.