U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

A restraining order filed against two LA Times reporters to stop news story dissolved by judge

Incident Details

April 11, 2022

Michael Mario Santillanes, a cosmetic surgeon who was the subject of a Los Angeles Times investigation, filed a restraining order against two reporters who investigated claims that Santillanes continued to practice medicine after his license was revoked in 2020. After first granting the order against reporters Jack Dolan and Brittny Mejia, a California U.S. District judge then permanently dissolved it on April 11, 2022.

According to the LA Times, the judge cited “omissions and inconsistencies” in Santillanes’ story and accused him of “attempting to mislead the court.”

When filing the request, Santillanes did not identify Dolan as a reporter, and claimed he was a menacing “Russian Thug.” Santillanes also implied that Mejia did not exist and was a made-up identity created to stalk his former clients on the review website, Yelp.

The LA Times reported that Santillanes' fictitious claims and the eventual restraining order — typically granted for immediate relief from violence, threats or harassment — derailed the reporters’ investigation.

Neither Dolan nor Mejia responded to a request for comment from the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker. The outlet’s General Counsel Jeff Glasser told the newspaper that this was the first time he had seen someone try to use a civil restraining order to prevent a news story.

“I was concerned that it posed a danger to our newsgathering,” Glasser said.

After the Times filed documents to challenge the restraining order, a court hearing was held in Santa Ana in early May 2022. During the hearing, an LA Times attorney said the paper found a computer system breach the day after Santillanes filed for a restraining order. Dolan’s direct deposit paycheck had also been rerouted and transferred to a prepaid debit card, and his work email account was accessed more than a dozen times illegally.

Judge Sandy N. Leal, who had initially granted the temporary restraining order, stopped the hearing after two days, permanently dissolving the restraining order and dismissing the case. Leal also invited the Times to file a motion requesting that Santillanes pay the paper’s legal fees, which it did. On July 11, Leal ordered Santillanes to pay $117,000 in attorneys fees.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker catalogues press freedom violations in the United States. Email tips to [email protected].