In a ruling that makes perfect sense, the Fourth District Court of Appeal held that an anti-SLAPP motion can be used to excise some allegations in a cause of action that involve protected activities, while leaving intact those allegations that do not fall under the statute.
In Cho v. Chang (LASC case number B239719), Jessica Chang sued a former co-worker, Howard Cho, for sexual assault and harassment. Chang filed a cross-complaint that was a clear SLAPP, because the two causes of action alleged defamation and infliction of emotional distress based on the things Chang had said about Cho to her employer, EEOC and DFEH. As I have said here many time, statements to government entities are protected, and the statements to the employer are a natural part of the redress process, and therefore are also protected.
But wait a second. The cross-complaint also alleged that the statements by Chang to her co-workers were defamatory. In some circumstances statements to co-workers can be protected, and indeed that was the argument made by Chang, but here the connection was too attenuated. As the court stated,
“Chang argues that her comments to co-workers related to matters of ‘public interest,’ but that is without merit. A public interest involves more than mere curiosity or private information communicated to a small number of people; it concerns communications to a substantial number of people and some connection with the public interest rather than a private controversy.”
So, if the allegations about the statements to co-workers state a valid action for defamation and infliction of emotional distress, must that baby be thrown out with the bath water just because it is contained in the same cause of action that include protected speech? Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Michael Johnson, and the Court of Appeal, answered “no” to that question. They both determined that an anti-SLAPP motion could be used surgically to remove just the allegations of protected activities and speech, while leaving any cognizable claims.
Nonetheless, the anti-SLAPP motion was successful, at least in part, so did Chang recover her attorney fees? In that regard, Judge Johnson was not very charitable. The judge noted that a party prevailing on an anti-SLAPP motion is normally entitled to an award of attorney fees, but said:
“While Chang’s motion has been granted in part, the ruling has produced nothing of consequence. Cho is still entitled to pursue his causes of action for defamation and [intentional infliction of emotional distress], and the evidence to be presented at trial is largely the same. Chang should have been aware that Cho’s allegations about private comments were viable, and she should have addressed the other allegations in a more focused and less burdensome manner (such as a traditional motion to strike or a motion in limine). Chang’s request for an award of fees and costs is denied.”
In December, David Hester filed a lawsuit against A&E Television Networks alleging that producers of Storage Wars rigged the reality-television series by salting storage lockers with valuable items before they were auctioned off to buyers. The producers deny the claim, pointing out that they have no access to the lockers before they are sold, but it could be that they are adding the items with the assistance of the buyers, after the purchase, to make the show more entertaining. After all, if the show was nothing but lockers full of expired National Geographic magazines, that would get boring fast. But I digress.
According to his lawsuit, Hester was told that his contract would be renewed for season four, but after complaining about the “fraud” that was being perpetrated on the viewers, he was told his services would no longer be required. He sued A&E and another entity for wrongful termination (huh?), breach of contract, breach of the covenant of good faith, unfair business practices, and declaratory relief.
Lesson 1: For every wrong, there is not necessarily a remedy.
Some attorneys just never get this. If I hire you for my television show, and I have the contractual right not to renew that contract at some point in the future, and you do something I don’t like, such as telling me you don’t like the way I am running the show that I’m paying you $750,000 to be on, then I just may decide not to keep you around. You are not some bastion for the public, given the task of making sure my show is pure. All reality shows are faked to some extent, and the viewers all know they are faked (although, incredibly, I did once run into a guy who thinks Ghost Hunters is totally legit).
It may stink that Hester got “fired” for wanting to keep the show honest, but if he wanted to make sure he never got fired for criticizing the show, the he should have added a “you may not fire me when I tell you your show stinks” clause to his contract.
Lesson 2: A faked reality show is an expression of free speech.
Can you sue Stephen King when you find out Pet Sematary [sic] is not based on reality? Then why did Hester and his counsel think they could sue A&E for its fictional Storage Wars? Not surprisingly, A&E’s attorneys asked the same question in the form of an anti-SLAPP motion. The motion was a no-brainer, because it involves a free speech issue of public interest, bringing it within the anti-SLAPP statute, and there was zero chance of Hester prevailing on at least one or more of his causes of action, so the second element was a lock. As I have explained many times here, a SLAPP suit will often make no mention of defamation or any other obviously SLAPPable claim, but nonetheless will be a SLAPP.
Lesson 3: Betting wrong on a SLAPP can be very expensive since some courts continue to rubber-stamp huge fee applications.
There is case authority for the proposition that if a court finds that a fee application on an anti-SLAPP motion was inflated, it can deny fees altogether, but I have yet to see a court follow the rule. In one case, I was brought in to challenge a fee application, and persuaded the court to knock off about 40% of the hours that were requested by the attorney who had successfully brought the anti-SLAPP motion. When the court stated in was reducing the fees by that amount, I reminded it of the authority that it could deny the fees altogether since defense counsel had been caught padding the bill. The judge responded, “Padding, what padding? I did not see any padding.” Well your honor, if the hours were all legitimate, then you should have awarded the full amount. But since you agreed with me that 40% of the time was inappropriate, then I would describe that as padding.
I have not reviewed the invoices for the anti-SLAPP motion in this case, nor do I know what other activities if any followed the original anti-SLAPP motion (for example, the plaintiff will sometimes request permission to conduct discovery following the motion and that takes time), so I offer no opinion on whether the time spent was appropriate. In the end, even after reducing the attorney fees requested by defense counsel, the attorney fees awarded still exceeded $120,000.
The case of Metabolic Research, Inc. v. Scott J. Ferrell, et al. is turning out to be a fascinating case on several levels, including liability considerations for attorneys and SLAPP issues. Briefly, here are the facts as set forth in a recent opinion of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Scott J. Ferrell is an attorney practicing in Orange County, California. He apparently believes that a supplement being made by Metabolic and sold by GNC (Stemulite) is bad stuff. To that end, he sent demand letters to Metabolic and GNC in Pennsylvania and Nevada, accusing them of violating the California Consumer Legal Remedies Act by way of false advertising, and threatening to sue them (presumably in California)* if they did not stop their (allegedly) evil ways and agree to an injunction to that effect.
In California, Ferrell’s letter would likely have been determined to be part of the litigation process and therefore protected, UNLESS it was deemed to be extortion. (See Flately v. Mauro.) In California, the issue would have proved very interesting, because while Ferrell was not demanding any money, the hallmark of true extortion, the injunction he was demanding was so onerous – including a requirement that all profits be disgorged – that Metabolic claimed it would have put it out of business. Nonetheless, in California it might have been decided that the letters did not cross the line, and Ferrell would have been safe from suit.
But Ferrell’s letters were sent outside of California. In November 2009 Metabolic filed a lawsuit in Nevada State Court against Ferrell, charging extortion and racketeering based on his demand letter. Ferrell removed the case to Federal Court (I never would have done that for the reasons that follow), and then brought a motion to dismiss based upon Nevada’s anti-SLAPP statute, claiming that the lawsuit amounted to a SLAPP because it was suing him for engaging in litigation.
Motion DENIED. The District Court found that “Nevada’s anti-SLAPP legislation only protected communications made directly to a governmental agency and did not protect a demand letter sent to a potential defendant in litigation.” Again, as would be appropriate in California but not necessarily elsewhere, Ferrell took an immediate appeal.
Appeal DENIED. Federal courts do not like interlocutory appeals, and will find a way to reject them. The court did an in-depth review of Nevada’s anti-SLAPP statute, and concluded there was no right of immediate review of a denial of an anti-SLAPP motion. The court referred to this as a “run of the mill anti-SLAPP motion” (ouch), and held that a District Court judge affords sufficient safeguards to protect defendants from SLAPP actions without the added protection of an immediate appeal. However, to twist the knife a little, the Ninth Circuit threw in that Ferrell could have proceeded by way of a writ of mandamus, and that it was offering “no opinion on how we might have decided” such an application had it been pursued.
Lawyer Lesson 1: Consider that when you send a demand letter out of state, you may be subjecting yourself to an action in that jurisdiction.
Lawyer Lesson 2: (And I have seen this over and over) Don’t remove a case to Federal court just because you can. The motion may well have been decided the same way in State court, but I would not have wanted it decided there.
* That’s not me presuming, the court opinion used those words.