C.A. Says Ex-Employee’s Settlement Demand Was Extortion
Settlement Demand Was Extortion and Not Protected by Anti-SLAPP Statute
A fired worker who sued his ex-employer for defamation and wrongful termination committed extortion when he threatened to instigate a federal investigation of the company’s business practices if his demands were not met, the Sixth District Court of Appeal ruled.
In another application of Flatley v. Mauro, the California Court of Appeal held that a pre-litigation demand letter was not protected under the litigation privilege because it crossed the line into extortion.
In a series of settlement demands prior to filing the lawsuit, the plaintiff stated that while he did not want to “make a Federal case out of” his employment dispute, he had been told by attorneys that if he initiated a qui tam action under the False Claims Act, it would “involve the United States the United States Attorney General, the Department of Justice or the DOD.” In other words, the plaintiff was using the threat of a criminal action to try and extract the payment of money.
The trial court had granted an anti-SLAPP motion, finding that the threats were protected speech, but the Court of Appeal reversed and reinstated the action.
The case is Stenehjem v. Sareen, in which the Court of Appeal provided a nice summary of the distinction between a genuine (protected) request to negotiate, and an (unprotected) extortion threat:
Here, the plain implication of Stenehjem’s August e-mail was a threat that unless Sareen accepted Stenehjem’s “extension of one last opportunity to settle … in a gentlemens [sic] manner,” he would “involve the United States Attorney General, the Department of Justice or the DOD” through a qui tam action alleging Sareen had violated the federal False Claims Act. His multiple references in the e-mail to “bottom-feeding attorneys” (including his own prospective attorney) – noting that he did not want to “enrich” them through a lawsuit – evidenced his linking a demand for negotiation and settlement of his personal claims with forgoing a threatened “Qui Tam option” and exposure of Sareen’s alleged criminal wrongdoing.
Stenehjem’s view that the e-mail was merely a benign desire to meet “face to face” to discuss his claims ignores the implied threat of exposing Sareen’s alleged criminal wrongdoing if Sareen persisted in his refusal to negotiate a settlement of Stenehjem’s claims, ones that Sareen had repeatedly said were meritless. Stenehjem’s stated “request to discuss the matter,” viewing the totality of the e-mail and the six-month history leading up to its transmission, was in reality a demand to negotiate and settle his personal claims or else face the potential exposure of unrelated allegations that Sareen had committed criminal acts. The fact that Stenehjem’s threats may have been “veiled” or “half-couched in legalese” does not disguise their essential character as extortion.
And the fact that Stenehjem did not make a specific monetary demand in the August e-mail does not preclude a finding that it was extortion as a matter of law. In Barton v. State Bar, our high court concluded that an attorney who had threatened to report to the prosecutor an oil company’s alleged practice of illegal product adulteration unless the company made “some sort of settlement'” with the attorney’s clients was conduct both warranting disbarment and “constituted an attempt to extort money as said crime is defined in sections 518, 519 and 524 of the Penal Code”