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Shellie Cummings v. Auburn Associates

January 30, 2012

SHELLIE CUMMINGS, PLAINTIFF AND APPELLANT,
v.
AUBURN ASSOCIATES, INC., DEFENDANT AND RESPONDENT. JEFF DUNCAN, PLAINTIFF AND APPELLANT,
v.
AUBURN ASSOCIATES, INC., DEFENDANT AND RESPONDENT. LARRY GONZALEZ, PLAINTIFF AND APPELLANT,
v.
AUBURN ASSOCIATES, INC., ET AL., DEFENDANTS AND RESPONDENTS.



(Super. Ct. No. SCV21366), (Super.Ct.No. SCV21360), (Super.Ct.No. SCV21365)

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Nicholson , Acting P. J.

Cummings v. Auburn Assocs.

CA3

NOT TO BE PUBLISHED

California Rules of Court, rule 8.1115(a), prohibits courts and parties from citing or relying on opinions not certified for publication or ordered published, except as specified by rule 8.1115(b). This opinion has not been certified for publication or ordered published for purposes of rule 8.1115.

Plaintiffs Shellie Cummings, Jeff Duncan, and Larry Gonzalez each sued their former employer, Auburn Associates, Inc. (Auburn Honda), and Auburn Honda's former owner, Jay Cooper, alleging defamation and invasion of privacy. Plaintiffs accused Cooper of slander for telling another employee that each was "a thief and a snake," and a "lying, thieving snake." Plaintiffs also claimed Cooper violated their privacy rights by informing the other employee how much money each had received in settlement of wrongful termination litigation they had earlier brought against Auburn Honda and Cooper.

The trial court granted Auburn Honda's motions for summary judgment against each of the complaints, and Cooper's motion for judgment on the pleadings against Gonzalez's complaint. It ruled as to Auburn Honda that Cooper's statements were not actionable because they were statements of opinion, and that Cooper's disclosure of the settlement terms did not violate plaintiffs' privacy rights. As to Cooper, it ruled he was entitled to judgment on the pleadings against Gonzalez under the doctrine of collateral estoppel.

Plaintiffs appeal. We affirm Auburn Honda's summary judgment awards on the same grounds relied upon by the trial court. However, we reverse the judgment on the pleadings awarded to Cooper, as the summary judgment on which the court relied to find collateral estoppel was not a final judgment for purposes of the collateral estoppel doctrine.

FACTS

The earlier employment lawsuits were brought by plaintiffs and another terminated employee, Richard Huse. They accused Auburn Honda and Cooper of wrongful termination, hostile work environment, retaliation, sexual harassment, and discrimination.

Former Auburn Honda general manager Larry Leonardo testified in his deposition for this matter that while he worked at Auburn Honda, Cooper would often come into his office to vent about plaintiffs' lawsuits. He would return from meetings involving the litigation "very, very, very upset." He was "pissed off at the whole thing." He would call the plaintiffs "'a bunch of liars, thieves,'" a "bunch of lying, cheating thieves," "liars and thieves and cheats," "[a]mongst other things." This happened about six times.

Ultimately, plaintiffs settled their lawsuits. Each plaintiff executed express waivers of any known or unknown claims arising out of their employment or association with Auburn Honda and Cooper. They also executed express waivers of the provisions of Civil Code section 1542.

As the lawsuits began settling, Cooper would inform Leonardo of the settlements and the amount of money each plaintiff agreed to accept. He informed Leonardo that Cummings settled for $115,000, and Gonzalez for $130,000. Cooper also told Leonardo that Duncan "'settled for [$]385,000, and that it is not that much money by the time he gets done paying taxes and the lawyer fees.'" Cooper, however, was "outraged" that Huse, whom he called the "'worst . . . son of a bitch . . . of the bunch,'" had not settled. Eventually, Cooper told Leonardo that Huse had settled for $385,000. After the four cases settled, Cooper did not speak about plaintiffs with Leonardo anymore.

Shortly thereafter, Leonardo was terminated. Leonardo later informed Duncan and Huse what Cooper had called them while the earlier litigation was underway. Huse asked Leonardo to prepare and sign a declaration attesting to what Cooper had said to help support another lawsuit by plaintiffs against Auburn Honda and Cooper. Leonardo did so, wherein he recounted the events just described.

Cummings and Gonzalez learned from Huse and Duncan of Cooper's comments to Leonardo about plaintiffs and his disclosures of the settlement terms. Each of them filed these separate actions accusing Auburn Honda and Cooper of defamation for the comments he made about them to Leonardo, and invasion of privacy for disclosing the financial terms of their settlements to Leonardo. Huse's case is not before us.

Auburn Honda filed motions for summary judgment or summary adjudication against the complaints. Regarding the defamation causes of action, Auburn Honda argued, among other things: (1) the complaints were barred by plaintiffs' express waivers of claims they had executed as part of settling the earlier litigation that released all unknown claims arising from their employment or association with Auburn Honda; and (2) the alleged statements by Cooper were statements of opinion and thus not actionable.

As for the invasion of privacy causes of action, Auburn Honda argued plaintiffs could not establish that tort because: (1) the settlement amounts were not a private fact, as the settlement agreements did not require Auburn Honda to keep the information confidential; and (2) any disclosure made was not done so publicly but only to one other person.

The trial court granted Auburn Honda's motions for summary judgment or summary adjudication. It granted the motion against the defamation cause of action because Cooper's alleged statements as a matter of law were statements of opinion and were not actionable. It granted the motion against the invasion of privacy cause of action because the settlement agreements required only the plaintiffs, and not Cooper, to keep the settlement amounts confidential. As Cooper was under no obligation to keep the settlement terms confidential, disclosing those terms could not form the basis of an invasion of privacy cause of action.

The court rejected Auburn Honda's argument that the waiver of claims in the earlier settlement agreements barred these actions. It found these actions did not arise from plaintiffs' employment and association with Auburn Honda and Cooper. That finding, however, ...


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