SANTA MONICA, California — A small business owner who operates pony rides and a petting zoo is fighting back against the animal rights activists who convinced the city council to cancel her annual contract next May.
Tawni Angel, the owner of Tawni’s Ponies, and her husband filed a lawsuit Monday in Los Angeles County Superior Court against Marcy Winograd and Danielle Charney, plus twenty other defendants, claiming defamation, intentional interference with prospective economic advantage, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
The lawsuit alleges that Winograd and fellow animal rights’ activists claimed falsely that Tawni’s Ponies was committing “animal abuse,” and that they continued to make that false claim even after being informed that the Santa Monica Police Department’s Animal Control Unit had investigated and found no evidence to support it.
A separate police report from Sgt. Mike Graham, cited by the plaintiffs in their complaint, stated:
I examined the ride set-up. The horses appeared in to be in good condition – their body weight appeared normal, their fur was clean and brushed, their manes and tails were brushed and healthy, the ground around them was clean and evenly flat, they walked on sawdust shavings, and there was no visible urine or feces. The equipment – saddles, bridles, and (thick) pads were in good condition. The horses were “quiet” and well behaved. I saw nothing to make me believe the horses were ill-treated, unhealthy, malnourished, injured, or in discomfort. The horses did not appear hot, were not sweating, and were on a timed (30 minute alarm,) water-break schedule.
I saw that as the horses walked in circles, their speed and disposition was constant and calm. Their path took them in and out of shade from the sun.
“Despite receiving written notice that there was no evidence of animal abuse, Winograd and the other defendants continued to wrongly accuse Angel and Nester of abusing their animals,” the plaintiff’s complaint states, citing several examples, including accusations repeated on YouTube in August, long after the police investigations:
On occasion, the complaint alleges, the animal rights activists even cited the California Penal Code, accusing Tawni of committing a crime–a claim that, if false, is libelous on its face.
The complaint also alleges that Winograd took personal photographs of Angel and her husband from his Facebook page drinking alcohol on vacation, and sent the photographs to city officials in her effort to convince them to terminate the Tawni’s Ponies contract.
Those emails had an apparent effect, according to documents obtained by Angel under California’s public records law. City council member Ted Winterer, for example, allegedly responded to Winograd via email and agreed with her about “the character of the owners.” In addition, the complaint notes, Facebook posts by Charney called Angel and her husband ““racist – bigoted – anti- women RW [right-wing] alcoholic gun toters.”
As a result, the plaintiffs allege, the Santa Monica City Council decided not to renew its contract with Tawni’s Ponies to provide pony rides and a petting zoo to the Sunday farmers’ market on Main Street. The contract had been renewed since 2003. The decision was made at 1:30 a.m. in a council meeting in September from which several members were absent or had gone home. Unless the decision is reconsidered, the contract will expire in May 2015.
Angel’s attorney, Donald E. Chomiak, told Breitbart News on Tuesday: “I’m very confident in our position in this lawsuit. The record speaks for itself.”
He cited the police report from May 2014 that exonerated Angel–and that referred to the animal rights activists as “very rude” and “argumentative” in describing their protest at the market.
Winograd knew Angel had been cleared, Chomiak said, yet “the entire time this woman kept spewing.”
Reached by telephone on Tuesday, Winograd struck back.
“I think it’s a coercive lawsuit designed to bully and intimidate people who exercise their constitutionally-protected free speech rights. I think it’s meant to silence me and the over 1,400 others who signed a petition calling for the closure of the animal exhibits at the Main Street Farmers Market,” Winograd told Breitbart News.
Winograd said she will file a motion under California’s anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) laws, which protect First Amendment rights against legal intimidation.
Update: Chomiak responded to Breitbart News regarding Winograd’s intent to file an anti-SLAPP motion:
Animal abuse is not a matter of opinion. It is a crime under California’s Penal Code and has specific elements that must be met. The police told Winograd on multiple occasions there was no evidence of animal abuse (i.e., that these elements had not been met). Thus, I think my clients are very likely to defeat an anti-SLAPP motion.
He noted that damages could potentially exceed several hundreds of thousands of dollars, given the annual value of the contract to Tawni’s Ponies.
Senior Editor-at-Large Joel B. Pollak edits Breitbart California and is the author of the new ebook, Wacko Birds: The Fall (and Rise) of the Tea Party, available for Amazon Kindle.
Follow Joel on Twitter: @joelpollak