The Colorado Court of Appeals has ruled in favor of an environmental activist who was sued by an oil and gas company over a 2016 post on a newspaper website — a case that figured in the passage of a new law protecting Coloradans against so-called SLAPP lawsuits for speaking out.
Pete Kolbenschlag was sued by SG Interests and SG Interests VII of Texas after he replied to an article on the Glenwood Springs Post-Independent's website about the Bureau of Land Management's cancellation of 18 leases that were to go to SGI.
The article, according to the Court of Appeals decision, discussed SGI's threat of legal action “based on evidence it says points to collusion between the Obama administration and environmental interests to reach a ‘predetermined political decision.’”
Kolbenschlag wrote that "While SGI alleges 'collusion' let us recall that it, SGI, was actually fined for colluding...to rig bid prices and rip off American taxpayers. Yes, these two companies owned by billionaires thought it appropriate to pad their portfolios at the expense of you and I and every other hard-working American."
SGI sued Kolbenschlag for libel in 2017, claiming his statements were untrue. They also tried to bring in Kolbenschlag for a deposition. The company argued that it was never fined and that it agreed to the settlement only because it was cheaper than going to trial.
A judge in the Delta County District Court ruled in Kolbenschlag's favor, and SGI appealed.
The appeals court, in an unanimous decision, upheld the lower court's ruling. The court agreed with the district court that a deposition was immaterial, since Kolbenschlag's comments were "substantially true," lacked malice and that Kolbenschlag had "no personal, special or unique knowledge of prior litigation" that would lead him to have more information.
Kolbenschlag's comment did not meet the standard for defamation, the appeals court ruling added.
Kolbenschlag sought attorneys' fees (his attorney is Steve Zansberg of Ballard and Spahr, which also represents Colorado Politics and its parent newspaper, The Gazette of Colorado Springs). The appeals court agreed that SGI's pursuit of an appeal was "groundless and frivolous" and awarded Kolbenschlag the attorneys' fees.
The lawsuit became part of the discussion during the 2019 legislative session and review of House Bill 1324, which set up an anti-SLAPP law. A SLAPP is a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, a term coined by DU professors George Pring and Penelope Canan in the 1980s.
Critics say the intent of a SLAPP suit is to dissuade people from speaking out against corporate or even government actions. House Bill 1324 was signed into law on June 3 and goes into effect on July 1.
Kolbenschlag testified in an April House committee hearing that the lawsuit has caused hardships, affected his finances and his business, caused enormous stress and taken hundreds of hours of his time in the last two years.
Under HB 1324, someone who believes they are being SLAPP'ed can seek an expedited court process. A special motion can be flied to dismiss within 63 days of the original complaint, with a hearing no later than 28 days after that.