Letter to Rancho Santa Fe Association board triggers legal war of words
By Joe Tash
A letter sent to the Rancho Santa Fe Association Board of Directors criticizing board member and former president Ann Boon — and calling for her ouster — has sparked a back and forth battle of attorney’s letters, which include discussion of potential legal action.
The original letter was signed by 33 Association members and delivered to the board of directors on Valentine’s Day, Feb. 14. The letter criticized Boon for what it called “poor leadership and governance,” and cited a number of issues, including “disrespectful behavior” towards Association staff and former manager Pete Smith, who has since resigned.
The letter also accused Boon of “hijacking” the Association board agenda for personal or political reasons, failing to adequately secure confidential or sensitive information and “arbitrarily” cutting off public comment by members who may be opposed to her views.
About two weeks later, attorney Valentine Hoy, representing Boon — who was removed from the board presidency on Feb. 20 by a 5-2 vote of the Association board but remains a director — wrote to the signers of the original letter, requesting a retraction.
“Unfortunately, your letter crossed the line by making false and defamatory statements about Mrs. Boon,” wrote Hoy. The letter went on to discuss laws regarding libel, and noted that, “Of specific import to your letter, opinions that carry with them the implication of acts of misconduct are actionable.”
It concluded, “On behalf of Mrs. Boon you are requested to retract your false statements about her. A retraction letter is enclosed for your signature. Mrs. Boon will take no legal action based on the Feb. 12, 2014 letter to the Board against any co-author who signs and delivers the enclosed retraction.”
A number of the people who signed the original letter to the Association board then hired their own attorney to respond to Hoy’s letter. Attorney S. Todd Neal wrote on March 7 that Boon, by assuming the position of Association board president, was a “public figure.” Therefore, to prevail in a libel action, Boon would have to prove “actual malice” by those who wrote the letter to the Association, meaning the authors had “knowledge, or reckless disregard, of the falsity” of their statements.
“In light of the obvious legal defects attendant to Mrs. Boon’s threatened claims, it would be a serious and grave error for her to initiate legal action because she will lose and she will end up paying the attorney’s fees and costs of approximately twenty-five defendants,” wrote Neal. “We are extremely confident that a court would find that our Clients were engaged in constitutionally protected free speech by virtue of signing the letter to the Association’s Board of Directors.”
Two people who signed the original letter to the Association, former Association board members Bill Hinchy and Jim Ashcraft, said they don’t intend to sign a retraction.
“We believe we have the right to express our opinion on things we see our elected officials do, without the threat of someone suing us. It has to do with our Constitution, it’s as simple as that,” said Hinchy.
“I will not bend on threat of a lawsuit to change my opinion,” said Ashcraft.
Hinchy said he would like Boon to say whether she intends to pursue the matter further. On March 5, her attorney wrote in an email to Neal that said, “Mrs. Boon has not withdrawn her demand for a retraction and has no intention of doing so. We look forward to receiving your response.”
That is the last communication that he or other signers of the letter have received, Hinchy said.
The situation is causing anxiety for those who received the letter from Boon’s attorney requesting a retraction, Hinchy said.
“It’s a bothersome thing to know someone out there is threatening to sue you, and they don’t do it, or they don’t say they’re not going to do it. It’s like a floating piece of trouble,” Hinchy said.
Boon, who is running for a new three-year term on the board in this month’s Association election, said she is limited in what she can say about the issue, and noted she has already made public statements about the original letter to the Association board.
“Their letter had false statements in it. And I thought the inaccuracies should be corrected, which is what I said,” Boon said.
In spite of the potential for legal action implied in her attorney’s letter, Boon said, “I am not suing and I am not threatening to sue.”
When asked, however, what she would do if the letter’s authors don’t sign retractions, she reiterated that she would not add to what she has already said publicly on the matter.
Ashcraft said he believes the letter by Boon’s attorney was intended to silence a part of the community critical of Boon’s performance on the board. But he said the effort at intimidation is not working.
“You don’t do this. We may not agree, but it doesn’t mean we sue people over a difference of opinion,” Ashcraft said.