Suing Someone for Suing Will Almost Always be a SLAPP

Anti-SLAPP attorneyI’ve been writing about SLAPP actions and anti-SLAPP motions for so long that I start to believe that surely by now attorneys must be aware of what constitutes a SLAPP. Apparently not.

When a client wants me to get defamatory content removed from the Internet, they normally ask me to send a cease and desist letter. Normally, I refuse. Most attorneys will happily take the client’s money and send a cease and desist letter, but I have seen hundreds of such letters, brought to me by clients asking me to do something about the defamation after another attorney sent an unsuccessful cease and desist letter. Long ago I learned that cease and desist letters are very ineffective. Often, the defamer will even post the letter as a badge of honor, to show that he succeeded in getting the victim’s goat, to the point that he retained counsel.

I think the reason cease and desist letters are so ineffectual is because they are perceived as toothless threats. In most instances, the defamer will ignore the letter and sit back and wait to see if the victim is really willing to pursue the matter in court. But if you send that cease and desist letter along with the complaint, giving the defamer five days to comply, they become very effective. Now he knows that the victim has already taken the time and expense to have the attorney draft the complaint, and is ready to pull the trigger.

So I followed this draft complaint approach for a client who had terrible things published about him on multiple blogs, and I could not believe how the defamer’s attorney responded. When the defamer did not comply within the five day deadline, we filed and served the complaint, and the defamer’s attorney responded with an answer and cross-complaint. The attorney brought an action for the emotional distress his client was suffering as a result of my demand letter, the draft complaint and the subsequent legal action.

This was the quintessential SLAPP, but there was a problem. The cross-complaint was so poorly drafted, I worried that if I filed the anti-SLAPP motion it might fail just because we could not determine exactly what the defamer was suing for. I needed the defamer’s attorney to better state his SLAPP, so I demurred to the cross-complaint pointing to the lack of specificity in the allegations.

The defamer’s attorney fell into the trap. Not only did he amend the cross-complaint to make very clear that cross-complainant was suing for the emotional distress he suffered from the demand letter and draft complaint, he added a new cause of action for abuse of process. Follow this logic. He contended that since my demand letter and draft complaint were sent to the defamer with the intent to make him take down the defamatory posts, the complaint was only then filed because he refused to do so. Therefore, the defamer’s attorney reasoned, the complaint was filed for an improper purpose. Instead of seeking damages, the complaint was seeking to have the defamatory comments removed, and therefore was an abuse of process. (The complaint did, of course, seek damages, but counsel contended that since the cease and desist letter had not demanded damages, then the complaint was not really intended to recover damages.) You can’t make this stuff up.

Now the cross-complaint was ripe for an anti-SLAPP motion. In opposition to my motion, defense counsel argued that the facts were identical to Flatley v. Mauro, where an attorney’s demand letter was found not to be protected by the litigation privilege because it amounted to extortion. One problem though – the cease and desist letter did not ask for any money. Thus, defense counsel was arguing that my cease and desist letter was extortion even though it did not ask for money, and the subsequent complaint was an abuse of process because the cease and desist letter had not asked for money. Talk about damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Of course the court granted the anti-SLAPP, and the attorney moved to be relieved, leaving the client to fight the motion for attorney fees in pro per. Wow. It was an interesting motion to draft, because I did not need to say one word about the falsity of the statements published by the defamer. The first prong of the SLAPP analysis was easily met because the cross-complaint dealt with my client’s seeking redress, and the second prong was equally automatically met since the cross-complainant could never show a likelihood of succeeding because his action was barred by the litigation privilege.

Yes, some SLAPPs can be harder to spot than others, but to all attorneys, if you find yourself preparing a cross-complaint based on the fact that someone sued your client, that’s probably a SLAPP. Malicious prosecution is still a viable cause of action, but only after having successfully defended the original action, and only then if all the elements can be met. Here is another attorney who learned that lesson the hard way.

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Aaron Morris, Attorney
Aaron Morris
Morris & Stone, LLP

Tustin Financial Plaza
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Tustin, CA 92780

(714) 954-0700

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