Sometimes you just know that a SLAPP is hiding in the complaint, but the complaint is so ambiguous that the SLAPP allegations are unclear. What to do?
In this episode, I tell you how to file an anti-SLAPP motion against an ambiguous complaint, which sometimes involves first beating it into shape. I have three approaches, which I call Demurrer, Discovery and Damn the Torpedoes.
1. Demurrer Approach.
As you can probably guess, the demurrer approach uses a demurrer to the complaint as the means to force plaintiff/cross-complainant to better set forth the SLAPP allegations.
In one case, I sent a demand letter and draft complaint to defendant, demanding the amount owed to my client. When defendant did not respond, I filed and served the complaint.
Defendant responded with a cross-complaint, alleging a cause of action for Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress (“IIED”). In the general allegations of the cross-complaint, defendant made reference to the demand letter and draft complaint, and those allegations were incorporated into the claim for IIED, but it was very unclear what defendant was claiming has caused him the emotional distress. If he was asserting that the letter and draft complaint were the culprits, those would be protected under the litigation privilege, and the cross-complaint would be a clear SLAPP.
I demurred to the cross-complaint, and defendant took the bait. His attorney filed a first amended cross-complaint, and this time made very clear that the letter and draft complaint had caused the stress. I was then able to file the anti-SLAPP motion, which was granted.
2. Discovery Approach
The downside to the demurrer approach is that you may run into a lazy judge, who declines to rule on the demurrer, telling you instead to “flesh out” the meaning of the allegations with discovery. If your demurrer is overruled, then it is likely you will by then be beyond the 60-day deadline for bringing your anti-SLAPP motion, and will have to seek permission.
Instead, if you act quickly, you can complete a round of discovery before the deadline for having to file the anti-SLAPP motion. That discovery can nail down the meaning behind the allegations of the complaint, and the responses can be used to support the anti-SLAPP motion.
3. Damn the Torpedoes
Finally, there is the Direct Approach, which I refer as “Damn the Torpedoes”.
In the case of an anti-SLAPP motion I filed this week, the complaint alleges a claim for Intentional Interference with Prospective Economic Advantage. Plaintiff alleges only that my client spoke to others, and those conversations interfered with the business.
In this case, my client knows who he talked to, so we can fill in the blanks without the need for a demurrer or discovery. In essence, the anti-SLAPP motion sets forth the details left out of the complaint. It identifies who my client contacted, and then shows why each of those conversations is privileged. The worst that could happen is that plaintiff will make a false claim that someone else was contacted, but that still has value, since early in the action we will have forced plaintiff to put his cards on the table.
Listen to the podcast for a far more detailed discussion, including the pros and cons, for each approach.