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SLAPP

“Stealth” SLAPP Suit Victory

One of our latest anti-SLAPP victories provides a beautiful illustration of a “stealth” SLAPP suit that the plaintiff’s attorney failed to recognize, to the great expense of his client.

In this case our (future) client’s business partner, we’ll call him Freddy Fraudster, opened a credit card account at a local bank using our client’s personal information. When our client discovered what Freddy had done, he contacted the bank and informed the personnel there that Freddy had committed fraud, and based on this report the bank closed the account and reported the matter to the police. Our client also filed a police report, and filed for a restraining order against Freddy.

Freddy was not happy. He had a long term relationship with the bank, and based on the report by our client, the bank closed his accounts and would have nothing further to do with him. Apparently thinking the best defense is a good offense, and hoping that winning the race to the courthouse might give him some leverage, Freddy filed an action against our client. He claimed that our client had authorized him to open the account, and that the report to the bank was therefore defamatory since it accused him of fraud.

Do you see why Freddy’s action in Superior Court was a SLAPP suit? Opposing counsel didn’t, but we recognized that this was a SLAPP suit and successfully brought an anti-SLAPP motion. You see, a SLAPP suit is one that tries to block a person’s right of petition. Freddy’s attorney realized that the report to the police and the application for the restraining order were protected rights of petition, but he mistakenly thought that the report to the bank, requesting that the credit card be cancelled, was not a petition for redress and therefore did not fall under the SLAPP statute because it did not involve any government agency. No doubt, he thought that by suing our client for defamation, he could make all his evil deeds go away and get back in good stead with the bank by offering to dismiss the case if our client would withdraw his remarks to the bank, court and police. Now it sounds like a SLAPP, doesn’t it?

The interpretation of the SLAPP statutes by Freddy’s attorney was far too narrow. Consider. One day you run a credit report on yourself and you find that someone has fraudulently opened a credit card in your name. What is the first thing you are going to do? Call an official government agency? You might do that eventually, but first you are going to call the credit card company and tell them to cancel the card. Thus, contacting the credit card company, or in our case the bank, is a natural part of the entire “right of petition.”

It’s very similar to the litigation privilege. I occasionally see cases where a defendant tries to sue the plaintiff and his attorney, claiming that the demand letter sent by the attorney was defamatory because it falsely claimed the defendant did something illegal. But under Civil Code section 47, anything said in conjunction with litigation is privileged and therefore not defamatory. The demand letter from the attorney takes place before legal action is ever filed, but it is still part of the litigation process.

So it was here. The report to the bank occurred before any “right of petition” was pursued with a government agency, but calling to cancel the credit card was a natural part of that process. If a plaintiff were permitted to SLAPP a defendant by focusing on the activities leading up to the actual right of petition, then the intent of the anti-SLAPP statutes would be subverted. We explained that to the court, and our motion was granted.

Anti-SLAPP Victory — The Case of the Outraged City Council Member

In this case, our (future) client addressed a city council meeting on a matter she felt was important to the city. Specifically, the city had been rocked by some controversy involving city council members, and our client was speaking to the issue of how the newly-elected council members should go about performing their duties. To illustrate the point, she cited the example of a former council member who had taken money from special interests. The city council member in question took umbrage with the accusation that she had acted unethically, and sued our client for defamation for the comments she had made at the city council meeting. We were retained to fight the defamation action.

It is seldom that we are presented with such a clear SLAPP suit. SLAPP stands for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation. What better example of public participation is there than a citizen addressing their city council? Indeed, under Civil Code section 47, any comments made during a “legislative proceeding” are absolutely privileged (meaning they can never be defamatory). Better yet from the standpoint of an anti-SLAPP motion, section 425.16(e)(1) provides that statements made before a legislative proceeding are protected speech.

So let’s run the facts through the two prongs of the anti-SLAPP analysis. First, as counsel for the defendant, it was our burden to show that the speech was protected within the meaning of the anti-SLAPP statute. That was a no-brainer in this instance, since the words were spoken at a city council meeting. And since the conduct falls under a specific anti-SLAPP section of 425.16, there was no need to show that the topic was a matter of public interest. “Any matter pending before an official proceeding possesses some measure of ‘public significance’ owing solely to the public nature of the proceeding, and free discussion of such matters furthers effective exercise of the petition rights § 425.16 was intended to protect.” (Briggs v. Eden Council for Hope & Opportunity (1999) 19 Cal.4th 1106, 1118.)

Our having shown that the speech was protected, the second prong of the anti-SLAPP analysis requires plaintiff to show a reasonable likelihood of success on her claim, which in this case would be impossible. Since section 47 makes speech at a city council meeting absolutely privileged, the speech by definition cannot constitute defamation.

So a slam-dunk anti-SLAPP motion, right? Not quite.

A SLAPP motion puts a stay on all discovery, which is one of the primary benefits of an anti-SLAPP motion because it keeps the plaintiff from using the discovery process as a sledgehammer to try to wear down the defendant. In this case, counsel for Plaintiff had served discovery prior to the anti-SLAPP motion, and argued that the court should permit that discovery prior to ruling on the anti-SLAPP. There is authority for the proposition that a plaintiff should be permitted to conduct discovery to determine whether the defendant acted with malice, because that takes away certain privileges under section 47. However, there is no malice exception for words spoken at a city council meeting, so no amount of discovery by the Plaintiff could have revealed information that would have defeated the anti-SLAPP motion.

Nonetheless, the court granted Plaintiff’s request for discovery, and that added two months to the process. It could have been that the court just did not understand the authorities we provided, but more likely the court was bending over backwards to give the plaintiff access to discovery, specifically because the judge knew she was going to grant the motion, and did not want Plaintiff to have any possible basis for appeal. In that sense, the judge might have done us a favor, but it is frustrating to deal with a frivolous action for an additional two months. We were successful, though, in greatly limiting the discovery. The court denied Plaintiff’s request to take our client’s deposition.

As expected, the discovery revealed nothing useful to the Plaintiff. Instead, the Plaintiff attempted to argue that the conduct by Defendant was “illegal” and therefore not protected. This was another instance where there is authority for the proposition being claimed, but that legal theory had no application to the case at hand. In the case of Flatley v. Mauro, an attorney had sent threatening letters to someone, threatening to sue him if he did not pay a large settlement to a client. Normally, a letter from an attorney in anticipation of litigation would be protected speech under the litigation privilege, but the Flatley court ruled that the attorney’s letters had risen to the level of extortion, and were therefore illegal and unprotected.

Plaintiff was trying to say that our client’s speech at the city council meeting was illegal and therefore unprotected according to Flatley. And how could speech at a city council meeting ever be illegal, you ask? According to Plaintiff, it was illegal because the city council’s own guidelines state that comments should be civil, and in Plaintiff’s opinion Defendant’s comments had not been civil.

Predictably, the court understood that even if the words were interpreted to be rude, a city council’s guidelines do not amount to law, and violating them does not amount to criminal conduct. The court granted our anti-SLAPP motion, striking the defamation complaint and entering judgment in our favor. The court also awarded us over $18,000 in attorney fees against the Plaintiff.

[Update — October 14, 2011]  The council member did not write us an $18,000 check.  We had to garnish her wages, and she represented herself in court seeking to reduce the amount being deducted from her paychecks.  To her credit, we were seeking $800 per check but she persuaded the court that given her financial circumstances it should be reduced.  She was asking that nothing be taken, but the Court settled on $500 per check (every two weeks).  I bring this up only for the lesson it offers.  It is outrageous that a politician would try to use legal action to silence a critic based on something said at a city council meeting.  The judgment is not so large that it will have any significant impact on her finances, but it is good to know that each of her next 40 or so paycheck stubs (adding costs and interest) will provide a reminder that a frivolous action has consequences.

Anti-SLAPP Victory — “If You Sue Me, I’ll Sue You!”

This case was especially satisfying because it was not a classic anti-SLAPP case involving defamation, but we persuaded the judge that the matter fell under the anti-SLAPP laws.

SLAPP stands for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation.  A “SLAPP suit” is one designed to silence a defendant, to prevent him from criticizing the plaintiff or, in this case, to keep him from taking a matter to court.  Here, our (future) client had entered into a settlement agreement with the defendant in a prior action. The settlement agreement required the defendant company to pay damages to our client, and contained a confidentiality agreement. Two years after the settlement agreement was signed, the defendant had still not paid the damages to the plaintiff, so he retained our firm to sue to collect the money due under the agreement.

After the defendant company could not be persuaded to pay the money voluntarily, we filed an action for breach of contract, attaching a copy of the settlement agreement. The defendant answered the complaint and also filed a cross-complaint, claiming that it was a breach of the confidentially agreement to attach the settlement agreement to the complaint. Incidentally, counsel for defendant had discussed with me his intention to cross-complain on this basis, and I had warned him that would be a really bad idea. He did so anyway.

The reason the cross-complaint was a bad idea is because it was a SLAPP. Do you see why? Remember again what SLAPP stands for – Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation.  Defendant had breached the settlement agreement, so clearly we were entitled to sue for breach of that contract. That is the public participation – taking a case before a court for redress of a grievance.  By turning around and cross-complaining that our client had breached the agreement by revealing its contents in court, Defendant was in essence suing our client for suing.  Attempting to punish someone for suing should always raise SLAPP concerns, but defense counsel filed the cross-complaint anyway, even after my warnings. We filed our anti-SLAPP motion against Defendant/Cross-Complainant for the cross-complaint.

So let’s run this case through the two-prong, anti-SLAPP analysis. Our burden was to show that the speech was protected under the anti-SLAPP statute. The speech here was the complaint itself, with the settlement agreement attached. Filing a complaint is a specifically protected activity under the anti-SLAPP statute, and comments made in conjunction with litigation are protected under Section 47. There was no issue that our complaint was a protected activity.

That takes us to the second prong, by which the plaintiff, here the cross-complainant, must show a reasonable likelihood of success on the merits of the case, even if the speech is a protected activity.  Our client was required to keep the agreement confidential in exchange for payment of the damages. But the company never paid the money, so our client was excused from performance. Further, to sue for breach of contract, a plaintiff must allege the terms of the agreement. Here, there was no way to allege a breach of contract without specifying the terms of that agreement. The company argued we should have sought to bring the complaint under seal so no one would ever know the terms, but there is not such obligation required under the law.

But the company had an even more fundamental issue with its cross-complaint. The elements of a breach of contract claim are (1) a contract; (2) a breach of that contract; (3) performance by the plaintiff; and (4) damages from the breach. The company was alleging breach of contract, but it had utterly failed to perform. I attached a declaration from our client saying he had never been paid, and the company could say nothing to refute that point. Thus, the company could never prevail on its breach of contract claim because it could not satisfy the performance element.

The court granted our anti-SLAPP motion, threw out the cross-complaint, and the company is on the hook for more than $15,000 in attorney fees.

[UPDATE — October 14, 2011]  This was a strange case.  Despite the anti-SLAPP victory, counsel for the company just refused to acknowledge the findings of the court.  During settlement discussions, he would always bring up the fact that his client was going to sue for breach of contract for our disclosure of the settlement agreement, even though that claim had already been denied by the court.  He maintained this position right up to trial, offering on the courthouse steps to pay our client a fraction of what he was owed in exchange for a promise that the company would not sue on this non-existent claim.  When we refused, defendant responded by agreeing to a stipulated judgment in the full amount we were owed.  I suppose that the strategy was to wait until the last possible moment in the hope that we would blink (many attorneys will do anything to avoid going to trial, but I am not one of those attorneys), but since the agreement contained an attorney fees clause, all this accomplished was a much higher fee award.  To quote John Lennon, “Strange days indeed, most peculiar, Mama.”

You Can Sue for Defamation in Small Claims Court

Wow. I may actually know what I’m talking about.

In one of my earliest postings on this blog, I recommended Small Claims Court to those who have been defamed, but can’t afford an attorney. In 2012 California raised the damages limit in Small Claims Court to $10,000!  Obviously this is not the way to go if you have a case with significant damages, but often the damages are minor, or damages are simply not the victim’s purpose in bringing suit. I suggested that an action in Small Claims Court can be an effective way to stop someone from continuing to defame you, and permits you to respond to anyone who asks you about the rumor, that you sued the defamer in court and won.

I had some secondhand knowledge of defamation actions being brought in Small Claims Court, but since attorneys are not allowed to represent clients there, I will never be able to test my theory directly. I’ve also been slightly concerned because I have received a couple of emails from readers who say that they were informed by a court clerk that defamation actions cannot be pursued in Small Claims Court.

Thankfully, a reader of my original posting was kind enough to call and spend some time on the phone with me, talking about his experiences. A vicious rumor got started about him some time ago, and like the urban legends that reappear periodically on the web, every few months the rumor about this person grows legs and starts getting spread again. Fortunately, because his professional circle is somewhat small, eventually the rumor reaches people that report back to the victim. He then brings a Small Claims action against the defamer, and has a witness to the statements.

This caller has brought four such actions, and has won every time. The judgments are small, but for the caller, damages were not the goal. He has found that the suits tend to eradicate the rumor in the community pockets surrounding the person who was spreading the lie. In other words, having lost in court, that person then goes back and tells the same people about the lawsuit. No doubt, the story is not told in flattering terms. Most likely the story goes something like this:

“Joe is such an asshole. I told Dave about how I had heard that Joe was stealing from clients, Dave told him what I said, and Joe sued me in court. The judge awarded him $2,500, so now I have to write him a check for $250 every month until it is paid off.”

But despite how the story is being told, the fact is that the people hearing the story are walking away knowing that it was a lie to accuse Joe of stealing, and Joe won’t put up with the lie being told.

This caller’s successes illustrate a couple of points. First, a “republisher” of a defamatory statement – one who simply repeats what he was told – is as guilty as the person who started the false rumor. Our hypothetical Joe may never learn who started the original rumor, but going after those who are repeating the lie is like a firefighter starting a backfire to stop a fire. It can help to stop the spread of the rumor, and may get back to the person who started it and cause him to shut up.

Secondly, and more to the point of this article, you can sue for defamation in Small Claims Court, regardless of what the court clerks may be saying. As I explained in the original article, a judge in Small Claims Court cannot give any equitable relief. In other words, he or she can’t order the defendant to stop spreading the rumor, or to provide a letter of apology, for example. That is why attorneys often don’t think to suggest Small Claims Court, and may be why the clerks think defamation actions cannot even be brought there. (Actually, a Small Claims judge can grant certain limited equitable relief, mostly having to do with contracts, and can condition an award on an act. He could, for example, award $2,500 in damages, reduced to $1,500 if the defamatory statement is removed from the Internet.)

And there are other big advantages to Small Claims Court. In many defamation actions, the specter of an anti-SLAPP motion looms large. If you sue for defamation and the defendant successfully brings an anti-SLAPP motion – convincing the court that the speech was protected – you get to pay the other side’s attorney fees. You are safer from an anti-SLAPP suit in Small Claims Court, and in any event there likely would be no attorney fees. (There are almost no absolutes in the law, so although very unlikely, I am not saying someone could not come up with a way to bring an anti-SLAPP motion in small claims court, such as having the action reclassified to Superior Court, or by bringing an oral motion at the time of trial.) Further, you cannot be sued for malicious prosecution if you lose on a Small Claims action.

With all this said, you’ll be wasting your time in Small Claims Court if you think you can go in and wing it.  You’ll be suing for thousands of dollars, so it will time and money well spent if you buy and review Everybody’s Guide to Small Claims Court in California.

[Update] I had recommended to another caller that her case was perfect for my Small Claims approach. She said the defamer would not stop defaming her, so I suggested that each time she learned of another defamation, she should drag him to court again. She took my suggestion to heart, and has sued him numerous times, and has prevailed every time, with total damages approaching $50,000. As you can see, a Small Claims action is not only a very streamlined and cost effective way to proceed, it can also be very lucrative.

[Update] As I predicted in my parenthetical above, a caller advised me that he was threatened with an anti-SLAPP motion in response to his small claims case. He added that he had gone to court to observe other cases as a way to prepare for his own trial, and he observed a judge grant an oral anti-SLAPP motion in a small claims case.

Communications Decency Act Still Unknown to Many Attorneys

 

Internet Defamation Go Daddy Girl

It seems like every few weeks I have to rail against a lawsuit I read about, wherein the attorney representing the plaintiff brings an action that is clearly barred by the Communications Decency Act.  In this latest installment, we find a New York attorney who represents plaintiffs who appear to have a solid case against some individual defendants resulting from some truly horrific defamation on the Internet.

But the attorney could not leave it alone.  I can almost see his mind working.  He thinks to himself, “these individuals will never be able to pay the judgment, so I’d better look around for some deep pockets.”  So, in addition to the individual defendants he names ning.com, wordpress.com, twitter.com, and my personal favorite, godaddy.com.

I sometimes use the analogy that naming a Internet Service Provider in an Internet defamation action is akin to naming Microsoft as a defendant because the defamer used Word to type the defamatory statements.  I never thought any attorney would actually go that far, but the attorney in this case surpasses even that far flung analogy.  I know it’s a foreign concept to some attorneys and their clients, but a defendant should only be held liable for damages if he, she or it has done something wrong.  Here, twitter.com is named because the defendants sent out “tweets” sending their followers to the defamatory content.  Godaddy.com is named because the defendants obtained the domain name there, and then set it to forward to their blog on wordpress.com.  How could these companies possibly be liable?  Well, according to plaintiffs and their attorney, they are liable because what the defendants did amounted to an “irresponsible use of technology.”

Apparently, in this attorney’s world, we have gone beyond even requiring that the website provider check the content of every web page posted on its server.  Now it is also the obligation of twitter.com to review and authorize every tweet that is sent, and godaddy.com must view with suspicion every account that sets a domain name to forward elsewhere.  Clearly there could be no Internet if such duty and liability could be imposed.

In (very slight) defense of the attorney, he does allege that these companies were informed of the nefarious use of their services, and did nothing to block the content.  Among the public there is an urban legend that a company becomes liable once it is informed that it is being used to distribute the defamatory content, but an attorney should know better.

A copy of the complaint can be found here, and a detailed article about the case can be found here.

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

“Lying” Comment Was Not a Verifiable Fact Given Context


Tom Martino Radio Defamation

Tom Martino

Context is everything in a defamation action.

In the recent Ninth Circuit case of Gardner v. Martino, plaintiffs sold a new boat from their showroom. The buyer of the boat claimed the boat was defective, and went onto a radio show to talk about the failure of the plaintiffs to address the problems. During the show, the host, Tom Martino, listened to the complaints of the buyers and commented that the sellers were “lying” when they claimed that they had tested the boat after performing certain repairs.

The plaintiffs/sellers took umbrage with that remark, and sued Martino, the radio station and the production company for defamation. Defendants responded with an anti-SLAPP motion, claiming the statement was merely an opinion and therefore could not constitute defamation. The trial court agreed with defendants and ruled that as a matter of law the comments did not constitute defamation. Under the anti-SLAPP statute, plaintiffs were ordered to pay all of defendants’ attorney fees.

I have commented here before that far too many attorneys think they can take on a defamation action, treating it like any other tort claim. This case illustrates what can happen when the attorney does not fully understand all the nuances of free speech and defamation. No doubt when the attorney was told the radio host called the plaintiffs “liars” that was viewed as an automatic case of defamation. And, in fact, in most cases calling someone a liar would constitute defamation. But here, the attorney apparently failed to consider the context of the statement.

A true opinion cannot constitute defamation unless it is offered as an assertion of fact.  While it was true that the radio program host accused the plaintiffs of “lying” to their customer, that could not seriously be taken as an assertion of fact given the context of the show. As the court observed, “The Tom Martino Show is a radio talk show program that contains many of the elements that would reduce the audiences’ expectation of leaning an objective fact: drama, hyperbolic language, an opinionated and arrogant host and heated controversy. In the context of the show, Martino was simply listening to the complaint of a caller, and possessed no independent knowledge of the facts beyond what he was being told. It could not be taken, in that context, that he intended his “lying” comment to be taken as a verifiable fact.

The two corporate defendants in this case were Westwood One and Clear Channel Communications, both huge companies. No doubt these communication giants hired big firms that billed hundreds of hours at $650 per hour. Now the plaintiffs, who felt hurt by being attacked on the radio and just wanted to clear their reputations, are on the hook for perhaps $100,000 in legal fees.

I am all in favor of taking steps to defend your reputation – it’s what I do – but proceed with caution with an attorney that really knows this area of the law.

You Can’t Sue Me, I Have the RIGHT to Defame You!

One of our current defamation suits involves a man that was accused of being a pedophile. He is not a pedophile, and the defendant freely admits that she does not really think he is a pedophile. Indeed, the Defendant says that our client has never done anything that would warrant her making such a claim. But that doesn’t stop her from making the claim anyway, because she doesn’t like him. That’s why we are suing her for defamation.

Here’s where the case gets stranger. Even though Defendant admits our client is not a pedophile, her attorney brought an anti-SLAPP motion claiming that our complaint should be thrown out because Defendant’s false statements are protected speech. Confused? Let me see if I can walk you through opposing counsel’s logic.

A Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (“SLAPP”) is a lawsuit or a threat of lawsuit that is intended to intimidate and silence critics by burdening them with the cost of a legal defense until they abandon their criticism or opposition.  Winning the lawsuit is not necessarily the intent of the person filing the SLAPP. The plaintiff’s goals are accomplished if the defendant abandons the criticism to make the lawsuit go away.

To guard against the use of lawsuits designed to quash free speech, California passed an anti-SLAPP statute. Code of Civil Procedure Section 425.16 provides a quick procedure a defendant can use to stop a SLAPP suit. Rather than goes through a year of costly litigation, a defendant can bring a simple motion to strike the complaint.  The court then decides whether the speech in question is protected free speech.

Section 425.16 applies to causes of action “against a person arising from any act of that person in furtherance of the person’s right of petition or free speech under the United States or California Constitution in connection with a public issue.” (§ 425.16, subd. (b)(1).)  Such acts include: “(1) any written or oral statement or writing made before a legislative, executive, or judicial proceeding, or any other official proceeding authorized by law; (2) any written or oral statement or writing made in connection with an issue under consideration or review by a legislative, executive, or judicial body, or any other official proceeding authorized by law; (3) any written or oral statement or writing made in a place open to the public or a public forum in connection with an issue of public interest; (4) or any other conduct in furtherance of the exercise of the constitutional right of petition or the constitutional right of free speech in connection with a public issue or an issue of public interest.”

So, the first three types of protected speech arise from the traditional forums – statements made in places like court, during a city council meeting or at some other public forum.  The fourth criteria can be outside a public forum, such as on a blog on the Internet, but that section requires that the matter being discussed concern a “public issue.” There are many competing court decisions that have tried to define what constitutes a public issue.

In our case, defense counsel argued that the Defendant’s false claim that Plaintiff is a pedophile is protected speech because stopping that behavior is a matter of public interest. He actually argued with a straight face that even when the accusation is a complete lie, one can accuse another of being a child molester and be protected from suit because the subject matter is so important. So, under defense counsel’s approach, certain topics would automatically enjoy heightened free speech protection, regardless of the circumstances. This obviously would make the job of defamers easier, because we could simply create a list of topics we find are important enough to be matters of “public interest” and the defamer could falsely accuse intended victims of those items, knowing the speech is protected.

The judge didn’t think that was a very good idea either.  Motion denied.  Defamatory speech is not protected speech under the anti-SLAPP statute.

Facts versus Law on Summary Judgment Motions

When pursuing an action for defamation, on the Internet or off, the first hurdles faced are the dispositive motion to strike under the anti-SLAPP statute and/or a motion for summary judgment.  In their desire to clear their dockets, courts sometimes overreach when ruling on these motions.  A recent case illustrates the point on a motion for summary judgment, where the court confused the distinction between facts and law.

In a persuasive holding the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals indirectly reiterated to litigators and the courts the importance of distinguishing questions of fact and law on motions for summary judgment.1 At the district court level in Posey v. Lake Pend Oreille School District, plaintiff Posey lost his first amendment retaliation claim on summary judgment because the court concluded that Posey acted as a public servant purely as a matter of law. Taking the issue up on appeal, Posey contested whether his conduct occurred pursuant to his official duties, providing the 9th Circuit with the opportunity to decide precisely what type of question Posey had presented to the district court, and whether the issue was proper for summary adjudication. Initially, the Court noted the elusive and vexing nature of the distinction between questions of law and fact, and chose to rely on guiding language from the U.S. Supreme Court: “Facts that can be ‘found’ by ‘application of . . . ordinary principles of logic and common experience . . . are ordinarily entrusted to the finder of fact.’ ” Moreover, ‘An issue does not lose its factual character merely because its resolution is dispositive of the ultimate constitutional question’ at issue . . . for ” ‘the rule of independent review’ will always require the court [to] independently . . . evaluate the ultimate constitutional significance of the facts found.”

The court went onto conclude that the issue of whether speech is made by a private citizen or public actor is a mixed one of fact and law, further concluding that the parties dispute over the scope of Posey’s precise duties presented a genuine issue of material fact sufficient to defeat the appellee’s motion. Aside from the obvious effect on 1st Amendment pleading, the case also kindly reminds of the importance of isolating each issue in opposing motions for summary judgment. As done by Posey, making a factual issue out of the basis upon which the court will decide a question of law may very well carry a matter to the trier of fact, which is exactly where distressed and sympathetic plaintiffs’ cases truly belong.

1.  Posey v. Lake Pend Oreille School District, et al., 2008 DJDAR 15780.

Biegel v. Norberg — Chilling On-Line Reviews?

Yelp Reviews and DefamationYelp is based in San Francisco and is viewed there as a favored son for some reason. When someone dares to challenge Yelp or its postings, many of our Northern California neighbors get exercised. I received several calls from media outlets over the past couple of days, seeking comment on the case of Steven Biegel v. Christopher Norberg, an Internet defamation case involving Yelp.com.

The simple facts are these. Norberg was treated by Biegel, a Chiropractor. Norberg was told the treatment would cost a certain amount if he was paying for it out of his own pocket, but his insurance company was allegedly billed at a much higher rate. This apparently bothered Norberg, so he posted a review on Yelp.com, giving Biegel just one star and questioning the honesty of his billing practices. When Biegel complained about the review, Norberg replaced it with a new entry, accusing Biegel of attempting to harass him into silence. Biegel then responded by suing Norberg for defamation. The trial is set for March 2009.

Note that Yelp is not being sued, only the person that actually posted the allegedly defamatory statements. Nonetheless, many are bothered by such a lawsuit, concerned that it will have a chilling effect on the willingness of people to post their views on sites such as Yelp.com and Citysearch.com. Some have suggested to me that just as the website is immune from liability for anything said by visitors, that immunity should be extended to the visitors as well.

I fought at the forefront of cases involving the Communications Decency Act, which shields website operators from liability for the comments of others, because that make infinite sense. We would not have open forums and dialog on the Internet if the website operators had to fact check every comment posted.

But on the issue of whether those who post the comments should be protected, I find myself cast as the curmudgeon, seeking to stifle freedom of speech. Here is how the San Francisco Chronicle quoted me:

“Sites that are seemingly well intended are turning into wastelands of defamatory and unspecified allegations,” said Aaron Morris, a partner with Morris & Stone LLP in Orange County who is not involved in the case. “There needs to be some sort of blowback against unfettered speech. People should be able to go on and say, ‘That’s not a true statement about me, and I need to be able to attack this.’ “

If everyone played nice, review sites would not be a problem. But they don’t. Suits against those who post defamatory statements won’t chill free speech, but they will chill defamatory speech, and that’s a good thing. You see, those seemingly helpful reviews you are reading on line are being gamed big time, and there must be a means to fight back. I receive calls every day from businesses that are being falsely trashed by competitors. In one case it was discovered that a company had employed a full time defamer (my designation, not theirs), whose job was to spend all day every day, creating false identities in order to post false reviews, blogs and websites about competitors. I’d love to say that it will all come out in the wash; that a good business will receive enough good reviews to override the false statements, but that is not the case. Whereas a legitimate reviewer will post their remarks and go about their business, these professional defamers utilize SEO methods to move the defamatory blogs and websites to the top of the heap.  Honest reviews don’t stand a chance against the bogus ones.

So what about the Norbergs of the world, who just want to post their comments without fear of legal action? Yes, the target of the criticism can file an action, but he will pay a heavy price if the posting was not defamatory. The poster can first respond with a simple anti-SLAPP motion, which stops everything including discovery and allows the court to determine whether the speech was protected and whether the plaintiff has a chance of prevailing. If the motion is granted, the plaintiff pays all of the poster’s attorney fees. He’ll then come to me, and we’ll file a SLAPP BACK action, suing the prior plaintiff for malicious prosecution, winning the poster millions of dollars and me a beach house (individual results may vary). Now who is chilled?

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Aaron Morris

Morris & Stone, LLP

Tustin Financial Plaza
17852 17th St., Suite 201
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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