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Show Some Love for California’s Anti-SLAPP Statute

A real Jones for the Basketball coach

Not the coach in question.

I get frequent calls from people who have run afoul of the anti-SLAPP statute, basically asking, “what can we do about this terrible law?”

Here’s the deal. Every law eventually gets subverted. The Americans With Disabilities Act sounded like a great idea, but then you ended up with attorneys who use it as an extortion racket, forcing fast food restaurants to pay thousands because a counter was 17 ½ inches high instead of 18.

So it is with California’s anti-SLAPP statute. It is a great statute, and for the most part attorneys have not found an effective way to misuse it, except for right to appeal an adverse decision, which many now use as a delaying tactic. Opposing counsel in one of my cases recently brought a motion for permission to file a very late (by two years) anti-SLAPP motion on the eve of trial, and when the motion was quite properly denied, then filed an appeal from that denial. Of course I had no difficulty getting the Court of Appeal to dismiss the frivolous appeal, but it delayed the trial a month. Except for this type of abuse, in most other regards California’s anti-SLAPP law provides a very useful tool to get rid of lawsuits designed to silence free speech or frustrate the right of redress. The point is, if you are complaining about California’s SLAPP statute, and your complaint has nothing to do with an attorney using it for delay purposes, then you probably filed a SLAPP action and the system worked by getting rid of it.

However, in case you still have it out for California’s anti-SLAPP law, I bring you an example out of Illinois that should make you feel a little better. California pioneered the anti-SLAPP concept, and most states have used that law as a template, but that hasn’t prevented some from coming up with their own strange hybrids.

Enter the case of Steve Sandholm, a high school basketball coach/athletic director in Illinois. In the case of Sandholm v. Kuecker, some parents decided they didn’t like Sandholm’s coaching style, so they really went after him, hoping to get him replaced. They posted useful, positive comments such as “[he is] a psycho nut who talks in circles and is only coaching for his glory.” The efforts were to no avail, because the school board decided to keep him. However that decision only fanned the flames, and the parents kept up their campaign. Sandholm found some of the statements to be defamatory, so he brought a defamation action.

But wait. Illinois has an anti-SLAPP statute that states that speech and petition activities are “immune from liability, regardless of intent or purpose, except when not genuinely aimed at procuring favorable government action, result, or outcome.” Wow that’s a broad standard. A school district is a government entity, and the parents were trying to get that government entity to do something (removing the coach), so did that fall under Illinois’ anti-SLAPP statute? If I read the statute correctly, that means that even if the parents got together and decided to fabricate lies about the coach, they are immune from a defamation action so long as those lies were “genuinely aimed at procuring a favorable government . . . outcome.” (I’m not saying that happened, I’m only using the case to present a hypothetical.) And how in the world is a court going to determine if the actions were “genuine”?

Incredibly, that’s exactly how the Court of Appeal interpreted the statute. Read this excellent summary of the case by John Sharkey to see just how convoluted the anti-SLAPP process can become.

Peer Review Process for Doctors is a Protected Activity Under SLAPP Statute

Anti-SLAPP Motion against doctor
The California Court of Appeal recently ruled that I know what I’m talking about when it comes to SLAPP law, and that I have saved many doctors from filing actions that would have been met with successful anti-SLAPP motions and thereby cost them many thousands of dollars, paying the other side’s attorney fees.

OK, the Court didn’t actually mention me by name, but that’s the way I read it. You see, most doctors (depending on their practice) want and need medical privileges at one or more hospitals. Without those privileges, their practices are really crippled. So when a hospital decides to revoke those privileges, it is a big deal for the doctor.

Following the revocation, the doctors want to do something, anything, to pressure the hospital’s board to reinstate the privileges. That often brings them to my door, wanting to sue for defamation, claiming that someone said something that cost them their privileges, and that they suffered damages as a result.

I have always refused such cases, because I am of the opinion that under normal circumstances, the entire medical peer review process qualifies as an official proceeding. Therefore, it falls under both the anti-SLAPP statute and the absolute privileges of Civil Code section 47. No matter how you try to plead the action, it will come back to the fact that the decision to “fire” the doctor was a protected activity.

Leading us to the case of radiologist John Nesson versus Northern Inyo County Local Hospital District. For reasons not important to the story, Dr. Nesson lost his privileges at a hospital. Dr. Nesson sought reappointment by the hospital and, after it was denied, filed a civil complaint. He retained counsel who either did not recognize the SLAPP aspects of the case or decided to take a run at it anyway, thinking they could successfully plead around them. (Which does not mean they did anything wrong, as set forth below.)

In the complaint, they alleged causes of action for: (1) breach of contract; (2) breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing; (3) violation of Health and Safety Code section 1278.5; (4) violation of the Unruh Civil Rights Act; and (5) violation of the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). In summary, the grounds for Dr. Nesson’s claims were that the hospital had breached the Agreement by not giving him 30 days’ notice of termination, had retaliated against him for his complaints about patient safety, and had discriminated against him for a perceived mental disability or medical condition.

A very good try. Do you see that none of the causes of action mention defamation or any of the other causes of action that one normally associates with a SLAPP suit? Many defense attorneys would not have even spotted the SLAPP issues, and the matter would have proceeded. But here is today’s lesson. A SLAPP is a SLAPP is a SLAPP, and it doesn’t matter what you call the causes of action if the conduct arises from a protected activity.

I previously wrote about my successful anti-SLAPP motion against Freddie Fraudster, who fraudulently obtained a credit card under my client’s name. When my client reported the fraud to the bank, Freddie sued claiming that damaged his reputation with that institution. In response to my anti-SLAPP motion, he argued that my client’s communications to the bank were not protected because they were not part of any formal review process. Motion GRANTED, even though the report in question was not to any official agency.

So too, the attorneys defending against Dr. Nesson’s action did spot the SLAPP issues, and brought an anti-SLAPP motion. Dr. Nesson argued in response that his summary suspension and the subsequent termination of the Agreement did not constitute protected activity because the hospital was not involved in the peer review process or his summary suspension. Motion GRANTED, because it’s all part of the same protected activity.

The decision to suspend privileges triggers a statutory scheme for review of the decision under Business and Professions Code section 805, so the actions of the hospital and the medical examination committee were a normal part of that process. As I have repeatedly explained would happen, the trial court granted the hospital’s special motion to strike, finding that the contract termination was “inextricably intertwined with the . . . summary suspension, arose from, and was in furtherance of the protected activity.”

But what about the claim that he was terminated because of a perceived mental disability or medical condition? If he was discriminated against, how can that be protected by the anti-SLAPP statute? How can that “arise from” the protected activity? As the Court of Appeal explained:

“[T]he anti-SLAPP statute applies to claims made in connection with the protected activity, regardless of defendant’s motive, or the motive the plaintiff may be ascribing to the defendant’s conduct. (Navellier v. Sletten, supra, 29 Cal.4th at pp. 89-90.) The only alleged evidence or argument in support of his claim that the Hospital perceived Nesson as disabled are the facts that the Hospital received the written special notice of summary action and the notice of medical executive committee action suspension. Nesson contends “[b]ased on the above letters and a report from the MEC, the Hospital decided to terminate Nesson’s Service Agreement.” These letters and any alleged “report” are part of the peer review process.”

In defense of the attorneys, there were complicating factors here, and sometimes you have to push the envelope. That is how statutes are interpreted under the law. The discrimination claim might have survived if the evidence had taken the alleged discrimination outside the review process. Further complicating the matter, Dr. Nesson did not exhaust his administrative remedies, and that gave pause to the court since that made it impossible for him to show a likelihood of success on the action.

Another Blogger Bites the Dust

Internet Defamation Against Blogger

Another blogger learned this week that you are judged by what you say.

Tara Richerson is a teacher in Washington. She had been blogging since 2004 and many of her postings were about her job. According to court records, when she was demoted from her position as a coach at the school, she wrote the following missive:

“Save us White Boy! I met with the new me today: the person who will take my summer work and make it a full-time year-round position. … But after spending time with this guy today, I think Boss Lady 2.0 made the wrong call in hiring him. … He comes across as a smug know-it-all creep. And that’s probably the nicest way I can describe him. … And he’s white. And male. I know he can’t help that, but I think the District would have done well to recruit someone who has other connections to the community. … Mighty White Boy looks like he’s going to crash and burn.”

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that Richerson’s blog contained “several highly personal and vituperative comments” that justified the Central Kitsap School District’s decision to transfer her from her job as a curriculum specialist and instructional coach to a classroom teaching position. The court found that Richerson’s speech was disruptive, eroded work relationships and interfered with her job performance, which involved mentoring teachers.

“Common sense indicates that few teachers would expect that they could enter into a confidential and trusting relationship with Richerson after reading her blog,” the court wrote in its Tuesday opinion. “Accordingly, the district court did not err in concluding that the legitimate administrative interests of the school district outweighed Richerson’s First Amendment interests.”

The court ruled that Richerson’s blog attacking co-workers, the union and the school district was not protected speech, and therefore she was not unlawfully demoted over it.

According to court records, Richerson was transferred out of her coaching job in July 2007 after school officials discovered her blog months earlier. Another of the blog entries that Richerson came under fire for was one entry in which she allegedly attacked a teacher and union negotiator, who complained to school officials about it. It read: “What I wouldn’t give to draw a little Hitler mustache on the chief negotiator.”

The lesson to learn is that you can and will be held accountable for the things you say. Even if your comments do not cross the line into defamation, they may still be considered inappropriate for other reasons. It is disingenuous for people like Richerson to cry foul and cite the First Amendment when they are held responsible for their own comments. The First Amendment does not state that you can say whatever you want with no fear of repercussion. If someone feels strongly enough about an alleged wrong to blog about it, then they should be willing to stand by those convictions.

The oral argument in front of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal is fascinating, and can be heard in its entirety here. I explain to clients that judges and justices tend to paint with a broad brush, and if you find yourself arguing technicalities and minutia, you are probably not going to prevail. Richerson’s attorney did an outstanding job, but he was forced to argue that the adverse job action was based on benign blog posts, not the post set forth above. That was a tough argument to sell.

Trial Judges Still Struggling With Application of Anti-SLAPP

anti-SLAPP does not protect defamatory speech

A recent decision by the California Court of Appeal, which reverses a trial court’s decision to dismiss the underlying defamation case, beautifully illustrates how trial courts still do not understand the anti-SLAPP statute. It’s unfortunate the plaintiff had to go through an appeal in order to educate this particular judge. The following summary of facts and quotes are taken from the Court of Appeal’s opinion. I apologize for the long post and multiple citations, but I want to have a place where people can be directed for the proper anti-SLAPP considerations and standards.

The action appears to have roots going back to 2003, when there was an altercation between Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, Director of Hillel at UCLA, and Rachel Neuwirth, a journalist working in the Los Angeles area. Neuwirth alleged that Seidler-Feller had attacked her without provocation in October 2003. Shortly after this attack, she alleges in her complaint, “disciples of Seidler-Feller maintained in public print that [she] had provoked the attack by making inc[e]ndiary statements” to him. Neuwirth denied these allegations. As a result of her injuries, she said, she sought legal redress and reached an “amicable settlement” with Seidler-Feller and Hillel accompanied by a letter of apology from Seidler-Feller, “published in various tribunals,” in which he “acknowledged that the attack upon [Neuwirth] was unprovoked, that he took full responsibility for said attack and apologized for his actions.” Continue reading

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Aaron Morris

Morris & Stone, LLP

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Tustin, CA 92780

(714) 954-0700

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View Aaron Morris, Trial Attorney and Partner at Morris & Stone, with emphasis on Free Speech and Defamation Law.

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