Disneyland Fan Clubs Duke Out Couple’s Libel Claims

SANTA ANA, Calif. (CN) – Medical records obtained from a health care provider, social media posts and an alleged smear campaign are at the heart of a defamation case between two fan clubs who meet at Disneyland in Southern California.

Social clubs are avid fans of Disneyland’s many franchises, including Marvel, Disney and Star Wars characters. Club members are frequent guests at the amusement park and meet at Disneyland’s Downtown Disney, among other locations.

Disneyland staff and management have no part in the clubs.

In the summer of 2016, Main Street Fire Station 55 Social Club president John Sarno was approached by a member of the White Rabbits social club, Jakob Fite. Sarno’s club was set to host a 9/11 memorial walk around the park and collect donations for families of firefighters.

Sarno says he was squeezed by Fite and other White Rabbits members for $500 in protection money, with Fite claiming charity events required permission from the White Rabbits social club to go forward.

When Sarno refused, Sarno says members of the White Rabbits orchestrated a smear campaign against him and his wife, Leslee Sarno. Fite threatened to ban the Sarnos from Disneyland, according to the lawsuit the Sarnos filed in Orange County Superior Court this past September.

According to the Sarnos’ lawsuit, Fite and the other defendants posted defamatory statements about John Sarno on the White Rabbits’ Facebook page, including statements that Sarno was a pedophile and stalked young girls through texts and telephone calls. The group also used Facebook to warn people who visited Disneyland about John Sarno, the lawsuit says.

Members of the White Rabbits also had T-shirts made bearing John Sarno’s name, “warning patrons of Disney that Sarno is a pedophile and to report Sarno to police on site (sic)” and encouraged members of the group to physically assault John Sarno when they saw him, according to the lawsuit.

Copies of John Sarno’s medical records were also somehow obtained from Kaiser Foundation Health Plan, which is named as a defendant in the Sarnos’ lawsuit along with Disneyland on claims of general negligence, intentional tort, invasion of privacy, and defamation (libel).

On Wednesday, Orange County Superior Court Judge Ronald L. Bauer denied an anti-SLAPP motion to dismiss a dozen defendants from the case. He noted several of the claims, including invasion of privacy, can’t be dismissed through anti-SLAPP.

Bauer also said comments made about John Sarno fall outside anti-SLAPP because they were intended to be accusations, like the statements accusing Sarno of pedophilia.

“You think that is not an accusation, but it was,” Bauer told attorney Aaron Morris from Morris and Stone, representing Fite and the members of the White Rabbits.

Bauer cited the 2011 case Martin v. Inland Empire Utilities Agency, in which the defendant failed to make a basic showing of protected activity.

The Sarnos’ attorney, Patricia Kramer from Neasham & Kramer, called the resulting smear campaign against her clients a “wave of vigilantism” that arose online.

Earlier this week, Kaiser Foundation Health Plan moved to dismiss two claims the Sarnos made against it.

In its demurrer, Kaiser said claims that an employee was able to “hack or unlawfully access…Kaiser’s medical files and to distribute medical information” offered no clear indication how Kaiser participated in a violation of privacy and did not name a Kaiser employee who may have been involved.

The Sarnos say Kaiser violated the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act and was “negligent in its maintenance of plaintiff’s health information.” Kaiser argued there is no private right of action for a HIPAA violation and the Sarnos offered no basis for a negligence claim in California.

Bauer gave the Sarnos 20 days to amend the complaint to show Kaiser should be held liable on those claims.

 

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