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.
I am very selective with the cases I take, and will only represent the side of a case that should win if justice is done. Out of the many cases I turn down every week, I know that most of the rejected clients will continue to call other attorneys until they find an attorney with less stringent standards; an attorney who does not understand defamation law and/or simply does not care about the merits of the case, so long as he is paid. I then envision the horrible train wreck that is waiting at the end of that track.
Today I happened to come across a news story, reporting one of those train wrecks.
The case involved a scorned woman. She worked as a paralegal, and ended up dating her attorney boss. As is often the case when a supervisor dates a subordinate, the situation gets a little sticky when the employee is not doing her job, and the boss must discipline her. In this case, according to testimony at trial, the paralegal made a serious mistake, and after the attorney blasted her over the mistake, she became so belligerent that he sent her home for the day to cool off.
The paralegal would have none of that. She claimed that he had fired her, and sued for sexual harassment and wrongful termination, claiming that he terminated her because she would not continue a sexual relationship with him. He claimed that he never fired her, and that it was he that had broken up with her because she kept telling him he was fat. The attorney counter-sued the paralegal for defamation on the grounds that she was going around telling people that he was a sexual predator.
The result? The jury rejected all of the paralegal’s claims, but awarded the attorney $1.15 million in damages for the defamatory statements. As this is being written, the jury is in chambers, deciding how much to add to that figure for punitive damages.
Lesson to learn? Make sure you can back up your version of the facts before venturing into the legal process, especially if you are contemplating suing an attorney. I never would have taken this case because of the huge holes in the facts. You say you were fired? Can you please produce the termination documents one would normally expect to see in the case of a termination? Had you reported this alleged sexual harassment to anyone prior to the day he sent you home?
[Update] The jury came back and awarded $100,000 in punitive damages. Counsel for the paralegal filed a motion for new trial, with a rather novel theory. Her comments about the attorney being a sexual predator were made to other attorneys. Therefore, her counsel argued, the comments should be protected by the attorney-client privilege. Novel, but I doubt it will fly.
Another reminder that you will be judged by what you write.
A student dismissed from the University of Louisville’s nursing school because of her Internet postings has sued the university, alleging that it violated her First Amendment rights.
The nursing school expelled Nina Yoder on March 2, saying her MySpace postings “regarding patient activities and identification as a University of Louisville School of Nursing student violates the nursing honor code which you pledged to uphold,” according to a copy of her dismissal letter, which was attached to the suit.
In her blog postings, copies of which she attached to her own complaint, Yoder makes caustic comments about Christians and blacks. I attempted to go to the website to make my own determination about the appropriateness of her comments, but she appears to have taken down her MySpace page.
According to an article posted at courier-journal.com, the nursing school is upset because some of Yoder’s postings are about specific patients (although they are not mentioned by name). In one of her postings, she wrote about a birth she witnessed: “Out came a wrinkly bluish creature, all Picasso-like and weird, ugly as hell … screeching and waving its tentacles in the air.” I’m not sure a patient would want the miracle of her child’s birth described in that way by someone who should, like any medical professional, respect her privacy, but I can also see that as a failed attempt to humorously describe what she had seen.
But there was far more. The school officials were probably equally unimpressed when Yoder wrote about how the nursing school is in downtown Louisville, adjoining an area “inhabited by humanoids who have an IQ of 10 and whose needs and actions are basically instinctive. As in, all they do is ––––, eat, –––– and kill each other.” She did, however, graciously concede, “OK, maybe I am generalizing yet again.”
As discussed in my prior blog posting, Yoder and her supporters are using the “there’s so much trash on the Internet you can’t hold my trash against me” defense. As Yoder wrote in her letter requesting reinstatement to the nursing program, “If profanity was grounds for dismissal for the School of Nursing, the nursing school would go bankrupt.”
The court has not yet set a hearing date on Yoder’s request that the nursing school be ordered to reinstate her. We’ll know then if the trash defense worked.
[UPDATE] Thanks to Web Savy Med Student for providing me with an update on this case. I was unable to find the court’s ruling, but according to Web Savy and other sources, Yoder took the case to court and was reinstated to the nursing school. The court dodged any free speech issues, and instead decided the matter strictly on the honor code. Although her comments were “objectively distasteful”, according to the court those comments did not deal with her profession and did not violate any confidentiality since the patient could not be identified.
California Civil Code Section 47 affords certain privileges that protect a person from liability, even if he speaks or writes something that would otherwise be defamatory. Civil Code section 47, subdivision (c), provides that a communication is privileged if it is made “without malice, to a person interested therein, (1) by one who is also interested….” Trial courts, anxious to clear their dockets, sometimes read far too much into this simple statute, and find a privilege in cases the statute was never intended to cover.
In Mamou v. Trendwest Resorts, Inc., an employee brought action against his employer, alleging national origin discrimination, retaliation, and defamation. The Superior Court, Santa Clara County, granted Trendwest’s motion for summary adjudication, and employee appealed.
The defamation claim was based on Mamou’s assertion that Trendwest had told other employees that he was starting his own competing business, and had used Trendwest information for that purpose. This would be both illegal and unethical, and therefore qualifies as defamation. However, the trial court found that the communications were covered by Section 47, and on that basis granted Trendwest’s motion for summary judgment, thereby dismissing Mamou’s case.
Application of the Section 47 privilege, as with any conditional privilege in defamation law, involves a two-step inquiry. The first question is whether the factual predicate for the privilege was present-whether, in traditional terms, the “occasion” was “privileged.” (Taus v. Loftus.) At trial the defendant bears the burden of proof on this question. If he succeeds, the burden shifts to the plaintiff to show that the statement was made with malice.
For purposes of a statutory qualified privilege, “[t]he malice referred to … is actual malice or malice in fact, that is, a state of mind arising from hatred or ill will, evidencing a willingness to vex, annoy or injure another person. The factual issue is whether the publication was so motivated. ‘Thus the privilege is lost if the publication is motivated by hatred or ill will toward plaintiff, or by any cause other than the desire to protect the interest for the protection of which the privilege is given’.” (Agarwal v. Johnson.)
The Court of Appeal found that a jury could easily find that the statements by Trendwest personnel were motivated by ill will towards plaintiff. Mamou alleged that one was hostile toward him as a member of the “Syrian regime” some members of Trendwest management had, inferentially, undertaken to purge. A jury would be entitled to find that these feelings would naturally engender spite and ill will toward Mamou, and that this was what motivated Trendwest personnel to make the statements Mamou claimed were defamatory.
This was just one example, but the Court of Appeal concluded that it was enough for Mamou to show evidence of a single triable issue of fact. Since he obviously did, the trial court erred by granting summary judgment on the defamation cause of action.
The analysis is somewhat circular, and sometimes escapes trial courts. Inter-office communications about an employee may well be privileged under Section 47. Say, for example, an employer believes that an employee stole from the company, and fires the employee on that basis. Thereafter, when asked why the employee was fired, the employer tells other employees that he had stolen from he company. If the employee sues for defamation, and can prove that he never stole from the company, would he prevail? Probably not, because in this hypothetical the employer genuinely believed that the employee was guilty. With no showing of malice, the Section 47 privilege applies.
But where the situation gets more complicated is when the employee is claiming that the defamation itself is the evidence of the ill-will constituting malice. If in our hypothetical there was no basis for the employer to believe that plaintiff was responsible for the theft, then telling that story may be sufficient showing of malice. This is a distinction that is sometimes difficult to get through to the trial court.