attorney fees

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.”

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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