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.”

The complaint further alleges that notwithstanding Seidler-Feller’s admissions, “in an effort to vilify and damage [Neuwirth’s] reputation further,” someone named Richard Silverstein published on the Internet a statement which “in effect called [Neuwirth] a liar” and took the position that Neuwirth had, in fact, provoked the attack and that Seidler-Feller’s “original version” was more credible than Neuwirth’s. Later, on May 3, 2007, Silverstein published on the Internet an article in which he referred to Neuwirth as “a ‘Kahanist swine’ thereby accusing [her] of being a member of a terrorist organization” and exposing her to hatred, contempt and ridicule and injuring her in her occupation in violation of Civil Code section 45. “The United States Department of State has issued . . . a list of terrorist organizations which include such organizations as Al-Qaida, the Palestine Liberation Front, and Kahane Chai, among others. To refer to a person as a Kahanist is to brand that person as a terrorist.” Silverstein knew his publication was false, and it constituted libel per se, she said.

On May 13, Neuwirth alleged (in her second cause of action), Joel Beinin joined the fray and published on the Internet a statement falsely accusing her of having made a death threat against him. At the same time, Silverstein issued another statement on the Internet reiterating the allegation Neuwirth had made a death threat against Beinin, although Silverstein knew the statement to be false. Accusing her of committing this crime, she alleged, also constituted libel per se under Civil Code section 45.

In response to Neuwirth’s complaint, both Silverstein and Beinin filed anti-SLAPP motions. (Code Civ. Proc., § 425.16.) In his motion, Silverstein asserted Neuwirth’s complaint arose from speech in a public forum regarding an issue of public interest as both he and Neuwirth write about the “Middle East conflict—a highly controversial matter of great public importance and political interest.” He attached copies of the statements to his declaration. Because he has chosen to advocate tolerance and peaceful reconciliation, he said, his “work has attracted vitriolic criticism from those who, unlike him, believe that Arabs and Jews should not live together.” For his part, Beinin basically argued that the claim of a death threat was true and protected on a number of grounds.

In a 28-page ruling, the trial court granted both special motions to strike and subsequently entered judgment in favor of both Silverstein and Beinin. While the defendants proclaimed their victory, Neuwirth filed her appeal.

Analysis for an anti-SLAPP motion.

A strategic lawsuit against public participation (SLAPP) “seeks to chill or punish a party’s exercise of constitutional rights to free speech and to petition the government for redress of grievances.” (Rusheen v. Cohen (2006) 37 Cal.4th 1048, 1055.) Code of Civil Procedure section 425.16, the “anti-SLAPP” statute, was enacted as “a procedural remedy to dispose of lawsuits that are brought to chill the valid exercise of constitutional rights.” (Id. at pp. 1055-1056.) In evaluating an anti-SLAPP motion, the trial court first determines whether the defendant has made a threshold showing that the challenged cause of action “arises from protected activity.” (Rusheen v. Cohen, supra, 37 Cal.4th at p. 1056.)

In the Neuwirth case, the trial court properly concluded that the comments alleged to be defamatory were at least arguably protected speech. But “protected speech” does not mean that the speech is immune from prosecution, and that is the distinction that appears to baffle many judges. Defamatory speech is never protected.* “Protected” simply means that it is subject to a higher level of scrutiny. The second part of the analysis still remains.

“[O]nce the defendant establishes the challenged cause of action . . . arise[s] out of the exercise of petition or free expression rights, the burden shifts to the plaintiff. The plaintiff must then establish a probability that he or she will prevail on the merits. . . . The Supreme Court has defined the probability of prevailing burden as follows: ‘[T]he plaintiff “must demonstrate that the complaint is both legally sufficient and supported by a sufficient prima facie showing of facts to sustain a favorable judgment if the evidence submitted by the plaintiff is credited.”’” (Hutton v. Hafif (2007) 150 Cal.App.4th 527, 537.)

“For purposes of this inquiry, ‘the trial court considers the pleadings and evidentiary submissions of both the plaintiff and the defendant (§ 425.16, subd. (b)(2)); though the court does not weigh the credibility or comparative probative strength of competing evidence, it should grant the motion if, as a matter of law, the defendant’s evidence supporting the motion defeats the plaintiff’s attempt to establish evidentiary support for the claim.’ . . . In making this assessment it is ‘the court’s responsibility … to accept as true the evidence favorable to the plaintiff … .’ [Citation.] The plaintiff need only establish that his or her claim has ‘minimal merit’ . . . to avoid being stricken as a SLAPP.” (Ibid., citations and footnote omitted; see also Jarrow Formulas, Inc. v. LaMarche (2003) 31 Cal.4th 728, 738 [“the anti-SLAPP statute requires only ‘a minimum level of legal sufficiency and triability’ [citation]”], quoting Linder v. Thrifty Oil Co. (2000) 23 Cal.4th 429, 438, fn. 5.)

“Section 425.16 does not bar a plaintiff from litigating an action that arises out of the defendant’s free speech or petitioning. It subjects to potential dismissal only those causes of action as to which the plaintiff is unable to show a probability of prevailing on the merits (§ 425.16, subd. (b)), a provision we have read as ‘requiring the court to determine only if the plaintiff has stated and substantiated a legally sufficient claim’ (Rosenthal v. Great Western Fin. Securities Corp. (1996) 14 Cal.4th 394, 412 [58 Cal. Rptr. 2d 875, 926 P.2d 1061] (Rosenthal)). So construed, ‘section 425.16 provides an efficient means of dispatching, early on in a lawsuit, [and discouraging, insofar as fees may be shifted,] a plaintiff’s meritless claims.’” (Equilon Enterprises v. Consumer Cause, Inc. (2002) 29 Cal.4th 53, 63.) “The purpose of section 425.16 is not to prevent lawsuits that arise from the exercise of constitutional rights, but it is to deter frivolous and improperly motivated lawsuits arising from those rights.[] Section 425.16 provides a ‘fast and inexpensive unmasking and dismissal’ of frivolous claims that are subject to the statute.” (Chavez v. Mendoza (2001) 94 Cal.App.4th 1083, 1089, citation and footnote omitted.)

Plaintiff’s claims must be taken as true.

The anti-SLAPP system fails when judges cannot make the distinction between the two parts of the analysis and engage in a weighing process. For example, assuming Neuwirth is a public figure, then she would need to show malice in the comments that were made about her. But in noting the obvious, the Court of Appeal stated that said malice could be inferred from the comment “Kahanist swine.” Some courts appear to believe that malice must be shown by some extrinsic evidence of evil intent, when in fact that proof can be taken from the words themselves.

If, in turn, there was a dispute over the meaning of that term (defendant claimed it was harmless), then the interpretation offered by plaintiff must be taken as true (who said it amounted to calling someone a terrorist). The standard is akin to that of a motion for summary judgment, where the motion must be denied if there is any material issue of fact. In other words, in determining whether the plaintiff is likely to succeed with the defamation claim, the standard is, “can the plaintiff succeed IF her evidence is believed?”, not “can her evidence overcome that being claimed by defendant?”. After all, the filing of an anti-SLAPP motion stops the discovery process, so it is to be expected that a plaintiff may have minimal evidence at that point.

The complete opinion can be found here.

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* Defamatory speech is never protected, but that must be kept in context.  For example, if Joe Citizen falsely testifies during a trial that the plaintiff cheats on his taxes, Joe can never be prosecuted for defamation for that speech.  In that instance there is no defamatory speech that is being protected because the speech by definition is not defamatory. Defamation requires a false, unprivileged statement. Comments made in court are privileged, and hence the statement cannot constitute defamation.

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Aaron Morris
Morris & Stone, LLP

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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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