Former News Staffer Hofer Prevails
Former Palisades News graphics director Manfred Hofer prevailed in small claims court in Santa Monica today against the paper’s former owner/publisher Scott Wagenseller for back wages ($8,460) and court costs ($120).
Said Hofer, a native Palisadian: “I’m very happy to receive the judgment in my favor. I’ll be happier still once I’m finally paid the money that’s owed me. You don’t just have someone work for you, benefit from that labor and then not pay them. It’s unconscionable.”
Wagenseller, who did not appear in court before Judge Lisa K. Sepe-Wiesenfeld, responded by e-mail late today: “Manfred will be paid by the new owners of Palisades News. This case will be appealed.”
Wagenseller, the founder/CEO of Gates Security and Palisades Patrol, launched the News in November 2014 and transferred ownership to the Mirror Media Group last December. T.J. Montemer is president of Santa Monica-based MMG, which publishes six other Westside newspapers. Terms of the deal were not disclosed, but Wagenseller still owed money to Hofer, other staff members and the newspaper’s printer.
In court today, while looking through months of unpaid invoices from last spring and at email records, Sepe-Wiesenfeld asked Hofer if he had asked Wagenseller to pay him and if his former boss had responded.
Hofer, a highly regarded graphic artist, pointed to an email that said his check was in the mail, which brought laughter in the courtroom and led Sepe-Wiesenfeld to quip, “You should have that framed.”
In late 2017 and early 2018, payments to many Palisades News staff members were late or never came.
In May, a group of local residents began negotiating to purchase the paper but couldn’t reach an agreement with Wagenseller.
In early June, members of the News staff refused to publish the June 20 issue if they weren’t paid.
Wagenseller then hired a new editor in July–former Palisadian Mark Schiele, a veteran journalist who lived in Pennsylvania—and asked him to find new writers.
Before Schiele could publish his first issue, he posted the following announcement on his Facebook page on August 10: “Well. The Palisades News job crashed and burned. Paper seems to be out of business. And here I am. Owed money and no job.”
On September 11, Hofer filed for back payment in small claims court in Santa Monica.
Subsequently, Wagenseller hired Debbie Beavers Moss, a Thousand Oaks resident, as the editor, and she put out four issues (September 12 and 26, and October 10 and 24).
On October 11, Hofer made his first appearance in small claims court and learned that even though a notice had been sent through the mail to Wagenseller, the court does not count that as proof of service.
Proof of service means the defendant (Wagenseller) has to be notified personally. Mailing a notice, even by registered mail, is not sufficient.
If the plaintiff has no way of serving a person, a County Sheriff can be hired (in Hofer’s case for $40) and will make three attempts to serve the papers.
If the Sheriff does not succeed, the plaintiff must find someone else to serve a defendant. It can be a process server, or an acquaintance who is 18 years or older to hand the papers to the defendant. Even if the person refuses to take the papers or tears them up, the papers are still considered served.
The person serving the papers must then fill out a proof of service and return it to the plaintiff, who gives it to the court.
Hofer’s case was postponed because he had to hire someone to serve Wagenseller. Since Wagenseller lives in Ventura County and his company is based in that county, a Ventura Sheriff’s deputy was hired.
On January 4, Ventura Senior Deputy Scott Reeder noted that he was unable to serve because “no answer at home address. Called, defendant refused to cooperate with service.” Reeder attempted to serve Wagenseller later that same morning, but with no luck.
On January 9, Reeder made another attempt, and this was successful. He wrote that Claim of Plaintiff SC-100 was “served upon Scott Wagenseller aka Wagenseller Publishing at Gates Security at Thousand Oaks. . .. by sub-serving a true and attested copy to female resident/wife (drop served female adult that answered the door [dark hair, approx. 40]). Referred to defendant as her husband.”
Once a small claims plaintiff has proof of service, the case can proceed, and Hofer was given a new court date of February 21.
Today, Wagenseller did not appear in court to defend his actions, but the trial still went forward. The judge scrutinized the total amount owed, the individual invoices and the emails that Wagenseller had sent Hofer.
Hofer also had voicemail recordings of messages that Wagenseller had left him on January 4, after the Sheriff’s deputy had made the first attempt to serve.
Wagenseller said, “Hey, Manfred. Scott here. Soon as you’re ready to get paid, you’ll stop your nonsense and talk to T.J. [Montemer, president of the Mirror Media Group]. He’ll start getting you paid and get it taken care of; otherwise you’re spinning your wheels and wasting your time. Hope all is well. Talk to you later. Bye.”
The court found in favor of Hofer. Wagenseller can now either pay what he owes his former employee from 2018 ($8,580), or he can appeal the judge’s decision.