Recent Cases

SLAPP016 – Appealing a Ruling on an Anti-SLAPP Motion

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In Episode 16 of the California SLAPP Law Podcast, we discuss (1) when you can join with another defendant’s anti-SLAPP motion, and whether it is a good strategy to do so; (2) what the Courts of Appeal are doing to deal with all the appeals from anti-SLAPP motions; and (3) likely changes to the automatic right of appeal.

We dive deep into the case of Hewlett-Packard Co. v. Oracle (2015), in which the Sixth District decried the abuse of the automatic right of appeal from rulings on anti-SLAPP motions, and took the unusual step of suggesting to the California Legislature how it could be fixed. The California Society of Entertainment Lawyers has offered the change set forth in the decision as a proposal to the legislature via the Conference of California Bar Associations.

We also discuss the cases of Decker v. UD Registry, Inc. and Barak v. Quisenberry Law Firm, and examine their very different views on whether one defendant can join another defendant’s anti-SLAPP motion.

Finally, in the post show, I introduce you to a brand new service that provides access to prior tentative rulings of trial court judges, which are a great resource when preparing important motions that will be heard by those judges.

Bill Cosby to Give New Deposition in Janice Dickinson’s Defamation Lawsuit

Bill Cosby will give a new deposition in the defamation lawsuit from Janice Dickinson over her allegations of sexual assault.

The former supermodel told Entertainment Tonight in November 2014 the comedian drugged her into unconsciousness and raped her. Cosby’s former attorney Martin Singer responded in a statement to the media calling Dickinson’s story “an outrageous defamatory lie” and “completely fabricated.”

In a hearing Monday, judge Debre K. Weintraub ordered Dickinson will depose Cosby and Singer by Nov. 25 on whether they knew if her allegations were true before denying them to the press. The testimony will follow Cosby’s recent deposition in Judy Huth’s lawsuit (which will be sealed until a Dec. 22 hearing in which the sides will argue if the testimony should be public).

Sourced through Scoop.it from: www.hollywoodreporter.com

 

Recent developments in one of the actions against Bill Cosby illustrate the availability of limited discovery after an anti-SLAPP motion has been filed, and how defamation claims are sometimes used to resurrect actions that would otherwise be barred by the statute of limitation.

Joining the bandwagon of Cosby accusers (or perhaps she was the first) Janice Dickinson stated that she was drugged and raped by Cosby many years ago. Any action for that alleged assault would be far past the statute of limitations, but when Cosby denied the allegations, Dickinson was then free to sue for defamation, claiming that by denying that the rape had occurred, Cosby was in essence calling her a liar. (Or in this case, Cosby’s attorney actually did call her a liar.)

This is a common tactic, and puts an accused party in a precarious position. They can remain silent, in which case everyone will think and the press will report that they must be guilty since they are not denying the charges, or they can speak up and deny the charges, in which case they face a defamation action. Cosby chose to claim innocence, and the defamation suit followed.

Cosby responded with an anti-SLAPP motion, and that led to Dickinson’s request for leave to take Cosby’s deposition.

Celebrities enjoy a benefit that the rest of us plebes don’t, and that is that anything said about them is deemed to be a matter of public interest, triggering the anti-SLAPP statute. The downside is that said celebrities are deemed to be public figures, and given the inherent ability of celebrities to respond to criticism by simply calling a press conference, the law imposes an extra requirement on them to prove defamation. To successfully sue for defamation, they must show that the purportedly defamatory statements were made with malice. Since Dickinson is also a celebrity, she must therefore show that when Cosby called her a liar, he did so with malice.

One way to prove malice is to show that the person making the comment knew it wasn’t true. And thus we go full circle. Dickinson says Cosby raped her, Cosby says he didn’t, so Dickinson says that’s proof of malice because he raped her and knows it.

When an anti-SLAPP motion is filed, the plaintiff can request leave to conduct discovery, and here Dickinson requested leave to take Cosby’s deposition, to prove the malice. It’s a long shot, because the only way Cosby’s testimony would prove malice is if he admits that he raped Dickinson and knew he had raped her when he denied the claim. (Or, I suppose, Cosby could get befuddled and say he doesn’t remember.)

See on Scoop.itCalifornia SLAPP Law

Morris & Stone Anti-SLAPP Victory – Witness at EEOC Hearing Protected

EEOC Shield

Every week I get callers complaining about the anti-SLAPP statutes and/or the litigation privilege. The scenario is almost always the same. The caller sued someone for defamation for something they said in conjunction with litigation or an investigation by some government agency, and the caller was hit with an anti-SLAPP motion. The caller is outraged that the anti-SLAPP motion is keeping him from getting damages for the allegedly false statements made in court or court documents.

The outrage is misplaced, because the law is working properly by preventing the callers from doing what they are trying to do. The legal system cannot function without a litigation privilege. That privilege provides that anything said in conjunction with litigation is privileged, and cannot form the basis for a defamation action. And since the speech is privileged, a plaintiff can’t make an end run around the statute by just asserting different causes of action. I have written on this topic before, and the prior article shows what the justice system would be like without the litigation privilege.

Today I argued an anti-SLAPP motion in Los Angeles Superior Court, and the facts of the case provide a real life example of why the litigation privilege is so essential.

Let’s call the plaintiff in this case John. John decided one day that his employer was discriminating against him, and filed a complaint with the EEOC on that basis. There was then a dispute with his employer, with the employer saying John had violated a company policy and John denying that claim. The employer fired John for the alleged violation. John argued to the EEOC that the termination for the alleged violation was just more evidence of discrimination.

The EEOC investigated John’s claims of discrimination, and during that investigation interviewed our client, who also worked for the company. We’ll call him Dave. Read the rest of this entry »

SLAPP001 – Why Every Litigator Must Know California SLAPP Law


California SLAPP Law Podcast

California’s SLAPP Law provides for the use of special motions to strike, called “anti-SLAPP motions“, to quickly dispose of lawsuits that were filed only to improperly silence free speech or to prevent the defendant from pursuing a lawful legal remedy.

But as one person put it, the 15 Legislators who passed the law failed to consider the 4,000 attorneys who would interpret it. There is a dark side to California’s SLAPP Law. It trades one form of abuse for another. It was designed to protect free speech and the right of redress, but now it keeps some legitimate cases out of court because the risks are just too high. And with its automatic right of appeal, it is used to greatly delay trials. Any anti-SLAPP motion, no matter how ill-conceived, gives the defendant an automatic right of appeal. A defendant can therefore delay a trial for a year or more just by filing an anti-SLAPP motion.

Finally, with the right to attorney fees it provides, it provides unscrupulous attorneys with a mechanism that allows them to recover windfall fees.

With Episode 1 of the California SLAPP Law Podcast, I take you through the history of the anti-SLAPP statutes, and explain why every California litigator must be familiar with this law.

Reporting a Fact is Never Defamatory

Facts are not defamatoryIt is never defamation to report a fact, even if that fact is that a person was charged with a crime they did not commit. I understand why callers sometimes don’t understand this distinction. The completely innocent caller was falsely arrested, so it seems like a newspaper that reports the arrest is somehow making a false statement that the caller committed a crime. But look closer, caller. The paper did not report that you committed the crime, the paper reported that you were ARRESTED for the crime. Truth is an absolute defense to any defamation claim, and it is true that you were arrested.

I also see this come up often in the context of an expunged criminal conviction. The caller was arrested and convicted for some youthful indiscretion, and later had the conviction expunged. Years later, the caller was either fired from or denied a job because a background investigation revealed the conviction. “But I had that expunged, so they shouldn’t be able to report it to my employer!”, the caller exclaims. The caller wants to sue for defamation, because in his mind the offense was expunged, and therefore it never happened. Since it never happened, it must be defamatory to claim that it did, right?

Not so much. Expungement does not change reality. The caller was arrested and convicted, so it is not a false statement to report that fact, and therefore there is no basis for a defamation claim. Note, however, that I am only talking about defamation claims. There are Labor Codes that make it illegal to discriminate on the basis of expunged criminal convictions. Go here for a discussion of those Labor Code sections.

What I don’t understand is how so many attorneys miss this point and pursue doomed defamation claims for their clients.

A recent example of this that caught my eye is a case out of Nevada. As reported by the Las Vegas Sun, the accounting firm of Deloitte & Touche was hired to perform an audit of a company called Global Cash Access Holdings, Inc., which is a publicly traded company that provided cash access services to the Nevada gaming industry.

The accounting firm uncovered information from an FBI bulletin which claimed that the two men who founded the company – Robert Cucinotta and Karim Maskatiya – were involved in criminal activity. As they were required to do by law, Deloitte & Touche disclosed this information to the audit committee. Cucinotta and Maskatiya were not happy with this disclosure, and felt it amounted to defamation because they were never convicted of any crimes and there was no evidence that they did anything criminal. They sued Deloitte & Touche, claiming that the disclosure cost the company $400 million in market capitalization and cost them $100 million personally.

But can you see why the comments by Deloitte & Touche were not actionable defamation? The accounting firm simply reported information that was contained in the FBI bulletin, as it was required by law to do. Certainly if those allegations against two principals of the company proved to be true it would greatly impact the value of the company, so that information was quite properly reported.

The Nevada Supreme Court, in a decision written by Justice Michael Cherry, said, “We agree with our sister jurisdictions that those who are required by law to publish defamatory statements should be privileged in making such statements.” In this case the court said Deloitte’s communication to the audit committee of the cash access company was required by the federal securities law.

Anti-SLAPP Victory — Shaheen Sadeghi v. Delilah Snell

Defamation Road Less TraveledI just wish counsel would run these cases past me before filing a defamation action. Here is a tale of a SLAPP that should have been spotted a mile away.

The tale starts with an article in OC Weekly. The article was about a guy named Shaheen Sadeghi. The article was extremely favorable to Sadeghi, referring to him as the “Curator of Cool” and discussing his amazing success in Orange County. OC Weekly even put his visage on the cover of the paper. Truly, it was a positive article that most would kill for.

But everyone has their detractors, and Sadeghi’s was a woman named Delilah Snell. After disclosing that Snell happens to be the girlfriend of a OC Weekly editor, the article reports on a dustup between Snell and Sadeghi, as told by Snell. Here is what the article said:

Still, some say Sadeghi will do whatever it takes to succeed. Delilah Snell, owner of Road Less Traveled, a shop in Santa Ana that sells environmentally friendly gifts and home goods, met with him in 2008 to discuss an opportunity to move to the Camp. (Full disclosure: Snell is the girlfriend of OC Weekly editor Gustavo Arellano.) She says the rent rate he gave was way too high, at least triple what she was paying, and she declined the offer. Then, she claims, he made a threat. “He basically said to me, ‘If you don’t move into my center, I will copy your business,'” she says.

Snell, co-founder of the Patchwork Indie Arts & Crafts Festival and a pioneer in Orange County’s eco-movement, believes her store is the model for the Camp’s SEED People’s Market, an airy, 12,000-square-foot gallery-type outlet that sells sustainable products and handmade crafts. Sadeghi owns the store with his wife, Linda. Snell claims that SEED has approached many of the vendors featured at Road Less Traveled and even used a photo of her shop in a promotional email sent out to customers. (The Weekly has a copy of the email.)

The article then goes on to tell Sadeghi’s side of the story:

Of Snell’s accusations, Sadeghi responds, “I think she’s full of it.” He says his business plan for SEED was dated “five years before she developed a business plan.”

“It’s a whole different store, whole different vibe,” he says, “and it has nothing to do with Road Less Traveled.”

The article then returns to singing the praises of Sadeghi, providing examples of how he is beloved by his tenants at his business centers like The Lab in Costa Mesa.

Sadeghi sued Snell in Orange County Superior Court, alleging in his complaint that Snell “orally accused Mr. Sadeghi of threatening to copy Ms. Snell’s business idea and plan if Ms. Snell did not move into Plaintiff’s retail center.” Sadeghi then alleged causes of action for slander, slander per se, libel, libel per se, invasion of privacy/false light, intentional interference with economic prospective advantage (sic), negligent interference with economic prospective advantage (sic), unfair competition, and injunctive relief. Whew! All arising from the statements Snell allegedly made to the OC Weekly, claiming that Sadeghi had said “If you don’t move into my center, I will copy your business.” Snell responded with an anti-SLAPP motion.

A quick aside to discuss the “Wall of Wrong”.

A potential client will call me, and during the call will tell me about 20 evil deeds committed by the defendant. In their mind, they have been horribly wronged, and they want to sue. Fair enough, but for a legal action each wrongful deed must be viewed independently to determine if it is actionable. I call the wrongful acts the “Wall of Wrong”, and each wrongful act is an item on that wall. (I considered calling it the Shelves of Wrong, but that didn’t seem as catchy.) I explain to the client that to determine if there is a case, we must walk up to the wall, take down each item and examine it independently to see if it will support an action. If not, it is tossed away never to be discussed again.

The reason this exercise is so important is because the client groups all the perceived wrongdoing together, and views it as a single act that certainly must support an action. But when all the conduct that does not support the action is stripped away, the client will often see that there is no action or that what is left remaining is pretty petty.

One more point to keep in mind in the defamation context is that just because something is false does not mean it is defamatory.

So let’s take Mr. Sadeghi to the Wall of Wrong to see if he has a case. Here, there are only two items to examine: (1) the claim that he was going to copy Snell’s business, and (2) that he pressured Snell to lease space in his center with the aforesaid threat. Let’s take those items off the shelf one at a time and decide if they will support a suit.

“I will copy your business.”

Sadeghi alleged that he never said he was going to copy Snell’s business. So, is it defamatory to falsely claim that someone said he was going to copy your business? Of course not. That statement, whether true or false, does not accuse Sadeghi of any wrongdoing. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. As the court put it in granting the anti-SLAPP motion, “Pepsi copies Coke. Gimbel’s Copies Macy’s. This is the nature of business.” Mr. Sadeghi, take that statement from the Wall of Wrong and never speak of it again.

Pressuring Snell to lease space.

Is it wrong to pressure someone to lease space in a mall? Of course not. But let’s refine that a little. Is it wrong to say you will copy someone’s business if they don’t lease space from you? Sometimes creating an analogous fact pattern makes it easier to analyze. Let’s say you have a chain of pizza restaurants, and a landlord comes to you and says, “we really want a pizza place like yours in our center, so we just want you to know that if you don’t lease the space, we’re going to create a pizza place just like yours for our center.”

Anything wrong with that? Sure, he’s pressuring you to rent the space with the threat of opening a competitor if you don’t, but that’s fair. When a landlord is looking for an anchor store in their mall, don’t you think they play Macy’s and Neiman Marcus off one another? Mr. Sadeghi, take that statement from the Wall of Wrong and never speak of it again.

So we are left with nothing on the Wall of Wrong, meaning that there is no case to pursue. This case should never have been filed, and the court properly granted the anti-SLAPP motion.

A SLAPP is not saved by numerous legal theories.

The other essential takeaway from this case is that nine causes of action do not a case make if the basis for the action is defective. In other words, if it was not defamatory for Snell to claim that Sadeghi said “If you don’t move into my center, I will copy your business,” then those words will not support any other legal theories like intentional infliction of emotional distress or unfair competition.

Further information about the case and the Court’s minute order can be found here, and the original article in question can be found here.

Texas Judge Still Unclear on SLAPP Law

Internet Defamation SucksI came across this humorous article that combines local politics and what certainly appears to be a SLAPP suit, although the judge couldn’t see it.

I get about one call a week that begins with the statement, “We’ve got to do something about this SLAPP law.”  In every instance so far, the caller thinks the SLAPP statute is a really bad idea because they filed a SLAPP, and got hit with an anti-SLAPP motion.  “We’ve got to do something about this SLAPP law” translates to “this SLAPP law really stinks because it is keeping me from suing someone who said something I don’t like.”

For a real-life example of the very purpose of the SLAPP suit, and the machinations that can pop up when someone tries to avail themselves of the SLAPP statute, go to Bullies: The Story of a SLAPP Suit Gone Wild.

By the way, this story presents a lesson that everyone should have figured out long ago. If your name is, say, Melissa Kingston, you should at the very least own the domain name melissakingston.com. The reasons are myriad. At the very, very least, Ms. Kingston may someday become a famous author, and would want to be able to promote her books on that website. Also, if another Melissa Kingston gets the name first and puts up a website about devil worship, some might mistakenly think she is the one promoting herself as the devil’s spawn.

Finally, and the relevant point to this article, owning your name on the Internet is very cheap insurance. If someone takes a dislike to you and [yourname].com is just sitting there ripe for the plucking, your detractor can buy that name and get into all kinds of mischief. It’s not bullet proof protection by any means — seeing that [yourname].com is taken, the detractor will just settle for [yourname]sucks.com — but the latter name is automatically recognizable as a protest site, whereas the former is not. Right now, if you have not done so already, go to Go Daddy and check on the availability of your name, and if it is there, buy it. The cost to own your name on the Internet is about 87 cents per month, and that includes a free landing page, where you could post your favorite picture or quote if you can’t think of anything else to do with it for now.

An Employee’s Report to Human Resources is Protected by SLAPP Statute

Human Resources Internet DefamationAlways remember when reviewing a complaint to see if it is a potential SLAPP that the anti-SLAPP statute is not only about speech, it includes the right of redress. Then, whenever you see that the defendant has complained to someone — anyone — consider whether that is a natural step one would pursue in seeking redress.

We were the first firm (that we know of anyway) to successfully pursue an anti-SLAPP motion based on a report to a bank. Our client’s partner had opened a credit card in the name of the company, and when our client found out, he went to the bank and closed the account, informing the bank personnel that his partner had committed fraud. The partner sued for defamation, and we successfully brought an anti-SLAPP motion on the grounds that reporting the fraud to the bank was the first logical step dealing with the fraud. Stated another way, all would recognize that if our client had gone to the police and reported the fraud, that would be protected, but who would go directly to the police without first running to the bank to get the card cancelled in order to stop any false charges? The court agreed with my argument that the report to the bank is part of the same right of redress.

And so it was found in the just reported case of Aber v. Comstock. There, and employee brought a claim against her employer and two of its employees for sexual assault. Comstock, one of the employees who Aber was suing, filed a cross-complaint against Aber for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Comstock’s case was likely doomed from the start, because as I have already explained here, suing someone for suing will almost always be a SLAPP, and he even alleged that part of the defamation was the report to the police, which is clearly protected. Specifically, Comstock alleged that Aber “orally published false statements about COMSTOCK to third parties, including but not limited to, friends, employees of Wolters Kluwer, health care practitioners, and the police.” The court reviewed the law that applied to each of these statements, and the most interesting was the analysis of the statement Aber made to her employer’s HR representative.

Were Ader’s statements to the HR department protected under the SLAPP statute?

An earlier case (Olaes v. National Mutual Ins. Co.) had found that statements to a company’s HR department were not part of “an official preceding authorized by law” and therefore did not fall under the SLAPP statute. Here, however, the court noted that a U.S. Supreme Court case (Faragher v. City of Boca Raton) had found that the failure of an employee to take advantage of corrective opportunities afforded by the employer could be used as an affirmative defense against a claim by the employee. So, put them together. Aber did not have to report the alleged assault to HR, but had she failed to do so, then her subsequent action for the assault could have been defeated. Bingo. That makes the report to HR a necessary part of the right of redress, and pulls it into the anti-SLAPP statute.

The case was properly decided, but is a little concerning given the course the court followed. The justices shoe-horned the report to HR into the SLAPP statute by finding it was necessary in order to preserve the ultimate legal action. As we demonstrated with our credit card case, the standard need not be so stringent, and instead the determining factor should be whether the conduct was a natural part of the process.

Go here to see the complete decision in Lisa Aber v. Michael Comstock.

Suing Someone for Suing Will Almost Always be a SLAPP

Anti-SLAPP attorneyI’ve been writing about SLAPP actions and anti-SLAPP motions for so long that I start to believe that surely by now attorneys must be aware of what constitutes a SLAPP. Apparently not.

When a client wants me to get defamatory content removed from the Internet, they normally ask me to send a cease and desist letter. Normally, I refuse. Most attorneys will happily take the client’s money and send a cease and desist letter, but I have seen hundreds of such letters, brought to me by clients asking me to do something about the defamation after another attorney sent an unsuccessful cease and desist letter. Long ago I learned that cease and desist letters are very ineffective. Often, the defamer will even post the letter as a badge of honor, to show that he succeeded in getting the victim’s goat, to the point that he retained counsel.

I think the reason cease and desist letters are so ineffectual is because they are perceived as toothless threats. In most instances, the defamer will ignore the letter and sit back and wait to see if the victim is really willing to pursue the matter in court. But if you send that cease and desist letter along with the complaint, giving the defamer five days to comply, they become very effective. Now he knows that the victim has already taken the time and expense to have the attorney draft the complaint, and is ready to pull the trigger.

So I followed this draft complaint approach for a client who had terrible things published about him on multiple blogs, and I could not believe how the defamer’s attorney responded. When the defamer did not comply within the five day deadline, we filed and served the complaint, and the defamer’s attorney responded with an answer and cross-complaint. The attorney brought an action for the emotional distress his client was suffering as a result of my demand letter, the draft complaint and the subsequent legal action.

This was the quintessential SLAPP, but there was a problem. The cross-complaint was so poorly drafted, I worried that if I filed the anti-SLAPP motion it might fail just because we could not determine exactly what the defamer was suing for. I needed the defamer’s attorney to better state his SLAPP, so I demurred to the cross-complaint pointing to the lack of specificity in the allegations.

The defamer’s attorney fell into the trap. Not only did he amend the cross-complaint to make very clear that cross-complainant was suing for the emotional distress he suffered from the demand letter and draft complaint, he added a new cause of action for abuse of process. Follow this logic. He contended that since my demand letter and draft complaint were sent to the defamer with the intent to make him take down the defamatory posts, the complaint was only then filed because he refused to do so. Therefore, the defamer’s attorney reasoned, the complaint was filed for an improper purpose. Instead of seeking damages, the complaint was seeking to have the defamatory comments removed, and therefore was an abuse of process. (The complaint did, of course, seek damages, but counsel contended that since the cease and desist letter had not demanded damages, then the complaint was not really intended to recover damages.) You can’t make this stuff up.

Now the cross-complaint was ripe for an anti-SLAPP motion. In opposition to my motion, defense counsel argued that the facts were identical to Flatley v. Mauro, where an attorney’s demand letter was found not to be protected by the litigation privilege because it amounted to extortion. One problem though – the cease and desist letter did not ask for any money. Thus, defense counsel was arguing that my cease and desist letter was extortion even though it did not ask for money, and the subsequent complaint was an abuse of process because the cease and desist letter had not asked for money. Talk about damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Of course the court granted the anti-SLAPP, and the attorney moved to be relieved, leaving the client to fight the motion for attorney fees in pro per. Wow. It was an interesting motion to draft, because I did not need to say one word about the falsity of the statements published by the defamer. The first prong of the SLAPP analysis was easily met because the cross-complaint dealt with my client’s seeking redress, and the second prong was equally automatically met since the cross-complainant could never show a likelihood of succeeding because his action was barred by the litigation privilege.

Yes, some SLAPPs can be harder to spot than others, but to all attorneys, if you find yourself preparing a cross-complaint based on the fact that someone sued your client, that’s probably a SLAPP. Malicious prosecution is still a viable cause of action, but only after having successfully defended the original action, and only then if all the elements can be met. Here is another attorney who learned that lesson the hard way.

Peer Review Process for Doctors is a Protected Activity Under SLAPP Statute

Anti-SLAPP Motion against doctor
The California Court of Appeal just ruled that I know what I’m talking about when it comes to SLAPP law, and that I have saved many doctors from filing actions that would have been met with successful anti-SLAPP motions and thereby cost them many thousands of dollars, paying the other side’s attorney fees.

OK, the Court didn’t actually mention me by name, but that’s the way I read it. You see, most doctors (depending on their practice) want and need medical privileges at one or more hospitals. Without those privileges, their practices are really crippled. So when a hospital decides to revoke those privileges, it is a big deal for the doctor.

Following the revocation, the doctors want to do something, anything, to pressure the hospital’s board to reinstate the privileges. That often brings them to my door, wanting to sue for defamation, claiming that someone said something that cost them their privileges, and that they suffered damages as a result.

I have always refused such cases, because I am of the opinion that under normal circumstances, the entire medical peer review process qualifies as an official proceeding. Therefore, it falls under both the anti-SLAPP statute and the absolute privileges of Civil Code section 47. No matter how you try to plead the action, it will come back to the fact that the decision to fire the doctor was a protected activity.

Leading us to the case of radiologist John Nesson versus Northern Inyo County Local Hospital District. Read the rest of this entry »

Aaron Morris, Attorney
Aaron Morris
Morris & Stone, LLP

Tustin Financial Plaza
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Tustin, CA 92780

(714) 954-0700

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