The managing editor of a conservative political site, who was sued by Katie Hill over a Daily Mail story featuring nude photos of the former congresswoman that her ex-husband made available to the media, is entitled to more than $80,000 in attorneys’ fees and costs, a judge ruled Thursday.
On April 8, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Yolanda Orozco found that Jennifer Van Laar’s lawyers demonstrated that the photos were matters of legitimate interest involving a public official because they addressed Hill’s character and qualifications for her position.
The judge dismissed Van Laar as a defendant in Hill’s revenge porn case on First Amendment grounds, opening the door for Van Laar to seek attorneys’ fees and costs.
Van Laar, who describes herself as a journalist in a declaration filed with the court and has also worked as a political consultant, asked for about $120,340 to compensate her lawyers for their work in preparing the dismissal motion, a related discovery motion and the motion for attorneys’ fees itself.
In her final ruling mirroring a tentative ruling she released Wednesday, Orozco said the amount sought by Van Laar’s lawyers was “excessive and therefore unreasonable” and awarded just under $84,000. But Orozco also rejected arguments by Hill’s attorneys that leniency be showed to their client because she was a well-meaning plaintiff seeking to determine the scope of a new statute, the revenge porn law.
“Contrary to (Hill’s) arguments otherwise, case law clearly holds that an award of such reasonable attorney fees is mandatory,” Orozco wrote. “While the court has the discretion to reduce the fees based on whether or not the court deems the fees reasonable, the court is obligated to award reasonable attorneys’ fees.”
The judge noted in court Thursday that she “lopped off $35,000, not a small bit of change.”
Orozco previously said she was sympathetic to the impact of the publications of photos on Hill, who suffered other setbacks when other media defendants, including the Daily Mail, also were dismissed as defendants on free-speech grounds.
“This is an unfortunate situation for Ms. Hill, no question about it,” Orozco said. She called the decision by Hill’s ex-husband, Kenneth Heslep, to make the images available to the media “tragic and unnecessary.”
Heslep remains a defendant in the lawsuit.
A story that appeared in the Daily Mail in October 2019 featuring nude photos of Hill with a female campaign staffer followed a series of reports published on RedState.com, which lists Van Laar as its deputy managing editor. Although Van Laar’s name is the third and last on the article’s byline, she says in a sworn declaration that she had nothing to do with writing the story that appeared in the British tabloid.
“I did not author this article, nor did I have input on authorship, nor was I involved in any way with the decision to include the photographs,” Van Laar said. “It is my understanding that my name was added to the byline as a professional courtesy.”
She said her sole connection to the article was an interview she did with the Daily Mail and providing a thumb drive she received from a “third party” with about 100 photos of Hill, 10 of which had nudity.
Van Laar told City News Service that she worked on the 2014 campaign of former Rep. Steve Knight, R-Palmdale, four years before the former congressman was unseated by Hill, and has not worked for him since.
Hill submitted a sworn declaration opposing Van Laar’s April dismissal motion.
“Van Laar knew, or should have known, that I had a reasonable expectation that the images would remain private,” Hill said. “I believe that California’s law against the nonconsensual distribution of intimate images is widely known and believe that someone that describes themselves as a journalist would be aware of it too.”
Hill’s lawsuit was filed Dec. 22. She alleges in her court papers that she lived in fear that if she ever tried to leave, Heslep would kill them both and their animals. Hill, 33, and Heslep officially divorced last October.
Hill, a Democrat, resigned in 2019 after the nude photos were published and news emerged that she had a three-way relationship with her husband and a campaign staffer. She was also accused of having an affair with a member of her congressional staff.
Hill publicly blamed her then-husband for the release of the photos. Speaking in Congress in 2019, she decried a “misogynistic culture that gleefully consumed my naked pictures, capitalized on my sexuality and enabled my abusive ex to continue that abuse, this time with the entire country watching.”
The 25th Congressional District includes Santa Clarita Valley, and portions of the northern San Fernando Valley, Antelope Valley and eastern Ventura County.
The seat had long been held by Republicans until Hill’s 2018 victory over Knight. After Hill’s resignation, Republican Mike Garcia defeated Democratic Assemblywoman Christy Smith in a special election to fill the final 7 1/2 months of the term. Garcia then beat Smith again by 333 votes in November’s election for a full two-year term.
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