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”
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.
An international defamation action has ended up here in California. Out of the UK, Tyneside councillors (that’s the way they spell it over there) are very upset that an anonymous blogger who calls himself “Mr. Monkey” has been defaming them.
The council has backed a three-year hunt to discover the identity of Mr. Monkey, with the legal fees now exceeding six figures. So far, since they did not retain Morris & Stone, the attempts to uncover the identity of Mr. Monkey have been unsuccessful.
Enter Coun Ahmed Khan, a councillor from a rival political party. The four plaintiff councillors successfully moved to have Khan’s personal computer records disclosed, because they apparently suspected him of being Mr. Monkey. Khan denies that he is the primate in question, but has cried “enough is enough”, and wants to put an end to the search.
To that end, he brought what I can only characterize as an offensive anti-SLAPP motion (not offensive as in crude, but as in the opposite of defensive). He intervened in the San Mateo Superior Court action and filed an anti-SLAPP motion, asserting that even though he is not Mr. Monkey, the comments of Mr. Monkey are protected and the action should therefore be dismissed.
Motion DENIED. Indeed, the court found the motion to be so frivolous that it awarded attorney fees of £40,000 to the plaintiffs. (I once obtained a judgment in Los Angeles Superior Court in British pounds. It’s worth it just to see the court clerks try to figure out how to enter it into the system and calculate interest and the like.)
Khan has now appealed the denial of his anti-SLAPP motion and the award of attorney fees. The complete story can be found here.
[Correction] The sources upon which I was relying may have jumped the gun as to the award of attorney fees. One of the parties to the action contacted me to state that the £40,000 figure is what is being sought, but that the motion for those fees has been stayed pending the appeal.
The District of Columbia instituted an anti-SLAPP procedure back in March but the judges are having a heck of a time figuring it out. (Don’t feel bad D.C., California has had a SLAPP statute since 1992, and some judges still don’t get it.)
Judge Rufus G. King III of the D.C. Superior Court got it right. A local television station did a report on the ridiculous amounts of overtime that was being paid to certain government officials. In one reported case of a fire department Lieutenant, his annual salary was $90,000 but he had earned as much as $119,000 in overtime pay one year.
That Lieutenant took exception with the fact that the news story had used terms like “racked up” and “month after month”, claiming those statements were defamatory. His attorney apparently failed to explain or he refused to understand that only the “gist” of the statement need be true in order to defeat a defamation action, so he filed a defamation action against the television station, and the station quite properly brought an anti-SLAPP motion.
Judge King ruled that the report was a matter of public interest and therefore fell under the anti-SLAPP statute, and that the Lieutenant failed to demonstrate a likelihood that he could establish damages. Motion GRANTED, case DISMISSED. Good job D.C.
But then there was Judge Richard Leon. You may recall that a U.S. Department of Agriculture official named Shirley Sherrod left her job after a video was released, seemingly showing her confessing to discriminating against white farmers. It later came to light that the comments were arguably taken out of context due to the editing of the video. Sherrod didn’t appreciate that, and sued blogger Andres Breitbart, among others, asserting in her complaint that the “deceptively edited” clip constituted defamation. Breitbart responded by bringing an anti-SLAPP motion, asserting that the posting of the clip was an act of protected speech.
Sure sounds like a SLAPP to me, but Judge Leon denied the motion out-of-hand with only a two sentence order. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit was stumped by that one as well, and today ordered Judge Leon to explain himself.
Less than a week ago, Judge Robert L. Wilkins out of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia was not nearly as concise as Judge Leon, and issued a 55-page opinion denying an anti-SLAPP motion, finding “that the special motion to dismiss procedure under the Anti-SLAPP Act does not apply to a federal court sitting in diversity.”
The California Court of Appeal has interpreted the term “official proceeding” as used in Code of Civil Procedure section 426.16 (the anti-SLAPP statute) to include even foreign litigation. The fact pattern here is rather involved, but to summarize, the action began in Zimbabwe when a wife allegedly took marital property to various locations in that country and then fled with her children to Northern California. The husband was convinced that his sister-in-law had assisted with the removal of the property, so he obtained a “writ of arrest” against her and she spent the night in jail. After a contested hearing, the Zimbabwe court found that there was insufficient evidence to prove that the sister-in-law had assisted in the removal of the property.
The sister-in-law then filed a civil action against the husband in Los Angeles Superior Court for false arrest. A jury found in favor of the husband, but the Court of Appeal reversed and ordered a new trial for various reasons. Back in Zimbabwe, the husband filed for permission to appeal from the final judgment on the arrest case. That application was supported by several declarations, including one from the husband’s California attorney, Donald C. Randolph of Randolph & Associates. The Zimbabwe court denied the application, and the sister-in-law then sued Randolph for malicious prosecution back here in California.
Quite appropriately, Randolph brought an anti-SLAPP motion seeking to strike the malicious prosecution complaint. Clearly, the declaration provided by Randolph was related to litigation and was in furtherance of a right of redress, even if that right was being pursued in Zimbabwe. Unfortunately for Randolph, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mel Red Recana was unwilling to take Section 426.16 that far, and denied the anti-SLAPP motion, concluding that it did not apply to activity in a foreign country.
But the Court of Appeal looked at the controversy from a slightly different angle. Although the declaration was provided to a court in Zimbabwe, it “contained statements about the effect of the Zimbabwe order in the Los Angeles case and the facts supporting probable cause for the writ of arrest,” which “were made in connection with issues under consideration in the Los Angeles case.” On that basis, the justices concluded, the statements were made “to influence the determination of issues pending in the Los Angeles case,” and therefore were a part of the right of petition in the Los Angeles case.
The story was reported by the Metropolitan News-Enterprise and can be found here.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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 succumbs to fear, intimidation, mounting legal costs or simple exhaustion and abandons the criticism. A SLAPP may also intimidate others from participating in the debate.
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. Claims stemming from these acts are subject to a special motion to strike unless the trial court determines that the plaintiff has demonstrated a probability of prevailing on the merits. (§ 425.16, subd. (b)(1).)
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.” ( Id., subd. (e).)
But note that the section requires a “public issue.” Many parties and judges forget this element, as illustrated by the recent, unreported decision, European Spa, Inc. v. Kerber, decided by the First District Court of Appeal on August 28, 2008.
In European Spa, a Yahoo.com user posted a review of the Spa, which stated: “My first impression was its tacky décor. Then I encountered an extremely rude European gentlemen, I believe this is the owner. From what I could see, the employees are miserable and tired. When I went into the steam room I saw mildew and brown spots on the walls…. I could not even sit in there. I went for my massage, and that was ok. But the room had a strange smell and the blankets were dingy. It was also very cold. I guess the owner does not put on the heat. There is just too much to go on about. I will never go there again, and I will make sure I will tell as many people as I can about the horrible experience that I had.”
Another review, posted on Yelp.com, stated: “One star is even too much for this place. First of all, when I walked in there it looked like selling a whole bunch of useless things you’ll wind up selling at a garage sale. The service was horrible. I had this creepy old European man helping me and he was just outright rude. The guy was acting as if he was doing me a favor by letting me come to his spa…. And what was with the 18 percent service charge? ? ? It’s questionable that the therapists or the providers ever receive it. My massage was ok and that was the only highlight of this…. And their sauna and steam room … was really disgusting. Their lounge are was just full of tacky decorations as what I’ve heard they’ve been around for a long time, and I really don’t understand why…. I would never come back and much would rather go to the spa at my gym.”
The owners of the spa were convinced that these posts came from a former employee that had started her own competing spa, not from customers. (As it turned out they were right, but they suspected the wrong employee.) They sued the former employee, who brought an anti-SLAPP motion, claiming that whether or not she was the person who had made the posts, they were protected free speech.
Resolving the merits of an anti-SLAPP motion requires a two-part analysis, concentrating initially on whether the challenged cause of action arises from protected activity within the meaning of the statute and, if so, proceeding next to whether the plaintiff can establish a probability of prevailing on the merits. (Overstock.Com, Inc. v. Gradient Analytics, Inc. (2007) 151 Cal.App.4th 688, 699.)
Several years ago the court in Rivero v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, AFL-CIO (2003) 105 Cal.App.4th 913, 924 (Rivero) made inroads into articulating the boundaries of what constitutes a “public issue” or issue of “public interest” as those terms are used in section 425.16, subdivision (e). Surveying the pertinent case law, the Rivero court identified three categories of statements that fit the bill: (1) the subject of the statement concerned a person or entity in the public eye; (2) the statement or activity involved conduct that could directly affect large numbers of people beyond the direct participants; or (3) the statement or activity concerned a topic of widespread public interest.
The court in Weinberg v. Feisel (2003) 110 Cal.App.4th 1122, 1132 also addressed the issue, delineating some attributes of an issue which would render it one of public, rather than merely private, interest: “First, ‘public interest’ does not equate with mere curiosity. Second, a matter of public interest should be something of concern to a substantial number of people. Thus, a matter of concern to the speaker and a relative small, specific audience is not a matter of public interest. Third, there should be some degree of closeness between the challenged statements and the asserted public interest; the assertion of a broad and amorphous public interest is not sufficient. Fourth, the focus of the speaker’s conduct should be the public interest rather than a mere effort ‘to gather ammunition for another round of [private] controversy….’ Finally, … [a] person cannot turn otherwise private information into a matter of public interest simply by communicating it to a large number of persons.”
In European Spa, the court concluded defendant was wrong in concluding that reviews posted on the Internet are subject to an anti-SLAPP motion, because they did not meet the”public interest” element. The reviews did not connect with or encourage any larger discussion or public debate of general societal or consumer issues related to the spa industry. For example in Gilbert v. Sykes (2007) 147 Cal.App.4th 13, a patient/consumer created a Web site that related the consumer’s experiences with plastic surgery performed by a prominent, widely known plastic surgeon, as well as information and advice for those considering plastic surgery. As the reviewing court explained, these statements concerned a matter of public interest within the meaning of section 425.16. The assertions that a high profile surgeon produced nightmare results that prompted extensive revision surgery contributed toward public discussion about the risks and benefits of plastic surgery in general. Equally important, the Web site was not limited to attacking the plastic surgeon, but contained advice, information and other features, including tips on choosing a plastic surgeon, that contributed to the general debate over the pros and cons of undertaking cosmetic surgery. (Gilbert v. Sykes, supra, at pp. 23-24.) The (fraudulent) spa reviews did not rise to that level, and the trial court denied the anti-SLAPP motion on that basis.
The same week, the Second District Court of Appeal came to a different conclusion in the unpublished decision of Kim v. IAC/InterActive Corp. There, a review about a dentist was posted on Citysearch, which read:
“Don’t go there-worse dentist in Glendale
I do not recommend Dr. Kim. I randomly selected him as my dentist but after my initial visit, I was very discouraged. He made it very clear that he did not like HMO patients (which I was). His attitude towards me was poor as if I was a second-class citizen. I waited 5 weeks to schedule an initial visit, and he made me wait another 6 weeks to schedule my first cleaning. “Because you’re an HMO patient, we cannot schedule you at convenient times.” He is also understaffed. His receptionist doubles as his dental assistant. She was quite unprofessional and made comments about my age and marital status when I turned in my patient information card. All in all, DO NOT use this dentist!”
The dentist filed a complaint and subpoenaed the records from Citysearch, and then filed an action against the poster, Citysearch.com and other defendants. The defendants filed an anti-SLAPP motion, which the trial court granted based entirely on the fact that the dentist was unlikely to prevail in his action.
The result was correct, but the reasoning was flawed. The statement did not cross the line into defamation or trade libel, and the action against Citysearch.com would never have survived under the Communications Decency Act, which shields Websites from liability for information posted by others. But the court never considered whether the post was a matter of public interest.