A San Diego Superior Court judge has thrown out a lawsuit by former San Diego Union-Tribune editorial cartoonist Steve Kelley, who alleged that newspaper officials intimidated his successor into dropping plans to develop a joint comic strip with him.

In a ruling issued late last month, Judge Jay M. Bloom said Kelley hadn’t “produced evidence of any unfair or unlawful business practice” by the newspaper. Even if its officials had made derisive comments about Kelley’s loyalty and team spirit, as alleged in the suit, they were merely opinion, Bloom ruled.

Kelley, who filed suit last year, alleged that the newspaper’s leadership “applied undue pressure and coercion” on Steve Breen, a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist who remains at the paper. The two cartoonists had been working on a newspaper comic strip called “Dustin,” but Breen canceled the partnership.

Kelley was fired from the newspaper in 2001 in a highly publicized flap after his editors refused to run a cartoon that poked fun at teens in low-riding jeans by showing what Kelley called “butt cracks.” Kelley claimed at the time that he was accused of trying to sneak the cartoon into the paper.

Breen replaced Kelley, who went on to become a cartoonist at the (New Orleans) Times- Picayune. Year later, they began developing the “Dustin” comic strip together.

The suit alleged that newspaper officials told Breen that Kelley was “not loyal” and “not a team player,” and that their statements made Breen “believe that his job at the U-T would be in jeopardy should he continue his involvement with ‘Dustin.’”

In his ruling, the judge noted that Breen had testified “that while he ‘sensed’ defendants were not crazy about him working with (Kelley), he quit working on the comic strip for reasons other than pressure from defendants. He testified he quit because he did not see the ‘magic’ in the strip, because of his workload and because he did not want to upset his employer.”

Bloom wrote that even if newspaper officials did question Kelley’s loyalty, the statements weren’t defamatory but instead “merely non-actionable statements of opinion.”

Bob Gaglione, Kelley’s attorney, said he plans to ask the judge to reconsider his ruling. An appeal is also possible, he said.

Kelley said today via email that the comic strip “Dustin” will be launched by King Features Syndicate in January.

— RANDY DOTINGA

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