Calhoun County Circuit Judge Malcolm B. Street Jr. filed an order Tuesday for Anniston City Councilman Ben Little to pay $3,263.63 stemming from a lawsuit Little filed against The Star in 2009.
In an email sent to The Star on Wednesday, the newspaper’s attorney, Dennis Bailey, said the total legal cost defending the lawsuit was approximately $72,000.
Bailey said the judge’s order could not cover the newspaper’s attorney fees under the “American Rule.”
“The ‘American Rule’ is that the loser does not have to pay the prevailing party’s attorneys’ fees,” Bailey said. “However, by statute, you can recover ‘court costs,’ which are defined to be filing fees, deposition transcript costs, witness fees, etc.”
The American Rule varies from state to state, but Bill Loving, a journalism professor at California Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo, said it’s not uncommon for a judge to allow the prevailing party of a lawsuit only partial repayment of legal fees.
“The prevailing party — that is to say the winner — always has the option to file to have the loser pay its costs,” Loving said. “Then it’s up to the judge.”
Loving said while it was rare for a judge to grant full repayment, in other states, such as California, lawsuits filed against newspapers are easier to dismiss due to “anti-SLAPP” laws. SLAPP stands for Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation.
“Anti-SLAPP laws exist to keep the door open for civilian engagement without the fear of hundreds and thousands of dollars in legal fees to shut you up,” Loving said, adding the laws “applies to everything,” and offer protection for individuals as well as organizations.
The state of Alabama is one of 22 states that do not have any anti-SLAPP laws.
But a group in Washington, Public Participation Project, is lobbying for federal anti-SLAPP laws that would make it possible for defendants of lawsuits to appeal to federal courts to have the case dismissed.
“That’s the beauty of anti-SLAPP laws, they can be thrown out early” said Evan Mascagni, a legislative assistant with the project. “Right when you get hit with that suit you can appeal,” and limit potential legal fees that would mount in a lengthy appeals process.
Little sued The Star for libel and outrage over a 2009 story in which then-Councilman John Spain suggested a relationship between Little and Yolanda Jackson of Uniontown might have played a role in Jackson receiving a $2,500 contract to audit the city’s human resources department.
Street ruled in favor of The Star in 2010, but the Court of Civil Appeals ordered the case back to a jury trial. After granting a request by The Star for rehearing, the Civil Appeals Court turned over its decision and denied Little another rehearing.
In November, the Supreme Court denied Little’s final appeal.
Attempts Friday to reach Little and his attorney, William Eugene Rutledge, were unsuccessful.
Star staff writer Brian Anderson: 256-235-3546.