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Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Press Democrat Sued Over 'Serial Squatter' Series

Posted By on Tue, May 24, 2011 at 4:30 PM

click to enlarge Is now the subject of a news story
  • Is now the subject of a news story

The Santa Rosa Press Democrat ran a series of stories about a woman accused of improperly using the courts to her advantage -- and you guessed it: The newspaper got sued.

Gwendolyn Smith was dubbed a "serial squatter" in half a dozen Santa Rosa Press Democrat articles describing how she'd repeatedly moved into dwellings, and once ensconced, used her expertise as a paralegal to attempt to live rent-free.

However, the newspaper painted Smith in a "false light" by "implying plaintiff was a scammer," according to a defamation complaint filed in federal court in San Francisco that demands $2.5 million in damages.

The newspaper implied much more than that, going so far as suggesting Smith cohabited with Beelzebub. Press-Democrat reporter Paul Payne wrote on Nov. 4, 2010, that Smith was a "tenant from hell."

The story was one of several Press Democrat reports from a case in which a judge ordered Smith to pay $49,635 in back rent and damages. That case had followed a previous rent-dodging judgment in Sonoma County where a judge ordered her to pay $42,000, saying she had "maliciously and manipulatively stopped paying rent." The paper then described another past judgment of $80,000, as well as "landlord-tenant cases in Hawaii."

When we called Smith, she told us that the news reports were bunk.

"The Santa Rosa Press Democrat has done a phenomenal amount of damage to myself and my son," she says. "They are careless, sloppy, and negligent, and this reporting is defamation per se. They got facts completely wrong."

Although during our conversation, Smith wouldn't specify which facts the paper got wrong, saying "the specific facts will be developed in the litigation." She did say, however, that the paper's malicious intent is "clear to anyone who reads the series of articles."

Press Democrat managing editor Bob Swofford responded to our inquiry with an e-mail saying Smith's lawsuit is without merit.

"Our story accurately portrayed the litigation that Ms. Smith was involved in, and we intend to move to dismiss the case," he wrote.

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