A longtime Southland banker who alleges he was defamed by a former business associate who said the plaintiff exploited both his Jewish heritage and his personal tragedies can proceed with his lawsuit, a judge ruled Tuesday in denying two separate defense challenges to the complaint.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Richard Burdge Jr. issued the decisions in favor of David Rainer, the current executive chairman of the board of directors for Southern California Bancorp, the holding company for the Bank of Southern California. Rainer brought the suit on Dec. 23 against Matthew Wagner, president, CEO and director of PacWest Bancorp, alleging defamation and intentional interference with prospective economic advantage.

Wagner’s attorneys maintained his comments were protected speech and that the cause of action for intentional interference with prospective economic advantage was vague because Rainer does not allege any actual business relationships exist with the probability of future economic advantage.

The judge disagreed with the defense’s free-speech argument.

“The court finds that (Wagner) has not met his burden … of demonstrating that the complaint’s claims arise from protected (speech),” the judge wrote. “Wagner’s testimony shows he was interested in protecting his own bank from losing employees and customers…”

The judge also rejected the defense’s position regarding intentional interference with prospective economic advantage.

Rainer’s suit describes him as a “giant in the Southern California banking community” for more than four decades. Early in his banking career, Rainer served as president and CEO of Encino-based California United Bank, which was sold to the Bank of Hawaii for $183 million in 1998, according to his court papers.

The next year, Western Bancorp sent a small team, led by Wagner, to recruit Rainer, the suit states. The hiring efforts were lengthy and so rigorous that Wagner joked that most courtships for marriage were quicker and less painful, according to the plaintiff.

Rainer agreed to join Western Bancorp and in 2001, the company was sold to U.S. Bancorp, after which he served as executive vice president and head of commercial banking for the western United States, the suit states.

In 2004, Rainer says he was “hit with a staggering amount of personal tragedy and heartbreak” in which he lost three immediate family members within a short time, leading him to resign from U.S. Bancorp “to process his grief and take a brief step back from his career.”

Rainer, after starting another bank that became the subject of acquisition talks with PacWest, later entered into a three-year, non-competing consulting agreement with PacWest and Wagner spanning the period from Oct. 20, 2017, to Oct. 20, 2020, the suit states.

After fulfilling his obligations under the PacWest consulting agreement, Rainer attended a meeting with other banking executives to discuss a possible future opportunity with the Bank of Southern California, according to his court papers.

Wagner “evidently caught wind of Mr. Rainer’s consideration of pursuing a future employment opportunity with the Bank of Southern California” and “has since embarked on a campaign to sully and disparage Mr. Rainer,” the suit alleges.

Wagner falsely told one banking executive that Rainer was fired from his position at Western Bancorp and that the plaintiff “had a pattern of exploiting personal tragedies, like the loss of his immediate family members to evade his professional duties and obligations and manipulate his employers,” according to the suit.

Wagner also said Rainer had a history of “illegally poaching employees” and that the plaintiff “had a pattern of deceptively using his Jewish identity to fabricate rapport and pander to those in his professional network,” the suit alleges.

According to his court papers, Rainer has asked Wagner to retract the “false and outrageous statements,” but the defendant “refused to retract any of his statements and evidently continues to stand by them to this day,” allegedly hampering Rainer’s efforts to identify new investors and raise capital for the Bank of Southern California.

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