Anti-SLAPP motion

A Huge Anti-SLAPP Victory by Morris & Stone in the Court of Appeal

Noe v J Niley Dorit

J. Niley Dorit v. Noe

At Morris & Stone, we sometimes take a case with an eye toward the greater legal implications. Prevailing for the client is of course our number one goal, but occasionally it is clear that the case could have legal implications beyond the dispute between the parties. This was such a case. It began as a, “well, that can’t be right” case, and morphed into a precedent that will control a small part of anti-SLAPP law until the universe reaches heat death.

Yet, it all started out so simply . . .

In January 2018, our client (we’ll call him Jack because that’s his name) hired an attorney named J. Niley Dorit to evaluate the medical records of Jack’s deceased mother for a potential medical malpractice suit against her doctors. The parties signed a fee agreement in which Jack agreed to pay Dorit a $10,000 non-refundable retainer fee. This sum was intended to cover Dorit’s time spent evaluating the claim, as well as “the costs of additional medical records and/or expert medical review if indicated.” The agreement contained an arbitration clause, which stated, “Should there arise any disagreement as to the amount of attorneys fees and/or costs, Client agrees to enter into binding arbitration of such issue or dispute before the Bar Association of San Francisco (BASF).”

On March 19, 2018, Dorit called Jack on the phone to present his analysis of the records. According to Dorit, Jack cut him off soon after Dorit began his presentation. Jack asked Dorit simply to provide his ultimate conclusion about the potential malpractice claim. Dorit said he did not think a malpractice claim was viable.

Jack was frustrated, feeling that Dorit had not provided $10,000 worth of services, especially given that he apparently had not consulted any medical experts. Conversely, Dorit felt that his experience with medical malpractice cases qualified him to review the file sufficiently to determine if a malpractice case was warranted. The medical file was huge, so Dorit felt he had earned his fee in examining the file.

The Mandatory Fee Arbitration Act

This is the sort of situation envisioned when the MFAA was was created. MFAA stands for Mandatory Fee Arbitration Act. Under California law, a client can challenge the fees charged by their attorney using this State Bar regulated process. It is designed to be very informal, and the arbitrator is not even required to follow the rules of evidence. It is a quick, low-cost way to have a fee dispute decided. Often the attorney fees involved in a fee dispute are relatively nominal, and it would never make economic sense to have to sue in court, let alone hire yet another attorney to do so. Rather than to force clients to stew in their own juices over the anger of having no recourse, the MFAA provides a quick review of the fees paid. And contrary to popular belief that the process is rigged in favor of attorneys, the MFAA arbitrators are very strict in determining if the attorney has observed all legal requirements.

Thus, a perfect process existed for Jack and Dorit to have the dispute decided, without going to court or even squaring off at ten paces. They submitted the fee dispute to MFAA arbitration. They presented their evidence to the Arbitrator, and ultimately he found in favor of Dorit, and allowed him to keep the $10,000 fee, awarding Jack nothing. Jack even had to cover the filing fee.

There are a couple of important things to know about the MFAA process. By law, a client always has the option to submit any fee dispute to arbitration. Sometimes it is the attorney who wants to sue to recover unpaid fees, but the attorney cannot take the matter to court without first giving the client the option to submit the dispute to arbitration. At that point, the arbitration is non-binding, unless the client then agrees to make it binding. If it is non-binding, then either party is free to reject the award of the Arbitrator and proceed to court.

Additionally, since the arbitration is so informal, and does not follow the rules of evidence, nothing from the arbitration can be used in any subsequent court proceeding. For example, had this matter proceeded to trial, Dorit would not have been permitted to bring up the fact that he had won the arbitration, or to bring up any of the arbitration testimony. It’s simply as though it never happened. This is because it would be entirely unfair to have a situation where clients are encouraged to go to an informal arbitration without the benefit of legal counsel, but then use the results of that hearing against the client in some other more formal forum, such as a trial.

OK; you now know everything you need to know about MFAA arbitrations. Back to our tale.

When we left our heroes, Dorit had won, and Jack was very unhappy with the result. But Jack has a code, and that code dictated that he had lost fair and square, and he would live with that result. Even though he would have been free to reject the conclusions of the Arbitrator, he did nothing and allowed the award to become final.

Dorit sues for Malicious Prosecution

But Dorit was not as accommodating. Dorit was upset that Jack had dared to question his entitlement to the $10,000 in fees, which he felt had been a malicious thing to do, so he sued Jack in San Francisco Superior Court for Malicious Prosecution. Read the rest of this entry »

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Discussions of a Doctor’s Competence Will Almost Always Fall Under the Anti-SLAPP Statute

anti-SLAPP peer review

Many years ago, I represented a woman who had posted a Yelp review about her lawyer, who sued her for defamation over the review. In response to my anti-SLAPP motion, the judge stated that the performance of a lawyer was not a matter of public interest, and therefore did not fall under the anti-SLAPP statute. The judge was incredulous that I would even make such a claim, saying that if my client had a problem with the lawyer’s performance, she should have complained to the State Bar.

He was wrong.

The appellate courts have since uniformly held that the performance of doctors and lawyers (and other professionals) are always a matter of public interest, since the public is generally interested in the competence of a doctor or lawyer they may be considering. In the specific case of a doctor, the peer review process also enjoys protection under the anti-SLAPP statute, albeit under a different provision.

So, when concerning a doctor’s competence, comments on a review site, or the peer review process, are protected. But what about the general comments concerning a doctor’s competence that are spread around a hospital? Would those too be protected? For example, what if the other doctors at a hospital warn patients about a particular doctor? That’s not really a public review, and it certainly isn’t part of the formal review process, so would such warning be covered by California’s anti-SLAPP statute? Read the rest of this entry »

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Shia LaBeouf – An Anti-SLAPP Legend in His Own Mind

Shia LeBouf anti-SLAPP legend

Shia LaBeouf, the actor of Even Stevens and Transformers fame, walked into one of my favorite eateries, and was denied service by the bartender, who felt that LaBeouf had already had enough. As Hollywood teaches, everything is based on racism, so LaBeouf immediately assumed that the refusal had to be based on racism, and called the bartender a “fucking racist” and “fucking racist bitch” (hereinafter, ‘FRB”). In classic, “do you know who I am?” fashion, LaBeouf pounded his fist on the bar counter, and yelled “you’re not going to fucking serve me?”, before going around behind the bar to confront the bartender, who felt sufficiently threatened to arm himself with a bottle of Grey Goose vodka.1 LaBeouf was escorted from the bar.

The bartender took umbrage with being called an FRB in a restaurant full of people, so he sued LaBeouf for defamation. After foolishly failing to consult with me, LaBeouf responded with an anti-SLAPP motion, and here’s where things get fun. Why would anyone on God’s green earth think that this defamation action would be subject to an anti-SLAPP motion? What is the public interest that would bring it under the statute?

But before accusing LaBeouf and his attorneys of being foolish for thinking that the an anti-SLAPP motion would apply to these facts, allow me to throw them a small bone by providing a little legal context. Read the rest of this entry »

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Never Forget that the Plaintiff’s Declaration is Taken as True

Evidence on anti-SLAPP motions.

I see too many cases where attorneys have properly identified that the allegations of a particular complaint fall under the anti-SLAPP statute, but then fail to complete the analysis. An anti-SLAPP motion is only viable if the second element favors the defendant. For a successful anti-SLAPP motion, if must be the case that the plaintiff will not be able to show that he is likely to prevail, and that determination is made base on the plaintiff’s evidence, which is taken as true.

For the second step of the anti-SLAPP analysis, it must always be remembered that the court is not permitted to weigh the evidence; indeed, the evidence offered by the plaintiff is taken as true, even if defendant offers contrary evidence.

I get shocked silence followed by howls of protest when I explain this to potential clients. How is it possible that the plaintiff’s evidence should be taken as true, to the exclusion of all the great evidence that defendant can offer? Read the rest of this entry »

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Is it Defamatory to Call Someone “Racist”?

In today’s political climate, the term “racist” gets used in seemingly every discussion. I get at least one call a week from a potential client wanting to sue someone for defamation because they were called a racist.

But is it defamatory to call someone “racist”? Would such an action be viable? To answer that question, let’s first set the legal scene, beginning with the elements of defamation.

The elements of a defamation claim are (1) a publication that is (2) false, (3) defamatory, (4) unprivileged, and (5) has a natural tendency to injure or causes special damage. (Taus v. Loftus (2007) 40 Cal.4th 683, 720.) The elements for libel and slander differ slightly, but both require a false and unprivileged statement. Read the rest of this entry »

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Forum Shopping Can Avoid Anti-SLAPP Statute

Anti-SLAPP Forum Shopping

About 30 states have anti-SLAPP statutes, and applying some sophisticated mathematical algorithms, that means there are about 20 states that don’t have anti-SLAPP statutes. This reality has led to the completely predictable phenomenon of forum shopping to avoid anti-SLAPP protections. If you are a public figure, or want to avoid protected speech issues, head to a state with no anti-SLAPP law.

One popular destination is good old Virginia. Ironically, Virginia’s motto is Sic semper Tyrannis, meaning “thus always to tyrants.” Virginia is a good place for tyrants to go so their lawsuits can’t be challenged. (It’s actually a shortened version of a Latin phrase meaning, “thus always I bring death to tyrants,” but my tortured version works better in the context of this article.)

Without any editorial comment intended as to their motives or the merits of their actions, it happens that Congressman Devin Nunes filed a defamation action in Virginia against Twitter and a parody account called “Devin Nunes’ Cow.” And Johnny Depp filed a defamation action against his ex-wife, Amber Heard, for an opinion piece she wrote for The Washington Post, discussing her alleged domestic abuse. She actually never mentioned Depp by name in the piece, but given their well known marital controversy, the bread crumbs were not hard to follow.

To be perfectly accurate, Virginia is technically one of the 30 states that does have an anti-SLAPP statute, but it is extremely limited, basically applying only to “statements made . . . at a public hearing before the governing body of any locality or other political subdivision, or the boards, commissions, agencies and authorities thereof, and other governing bodies of any local governmental entity concerning matters properly before such body.” And even those statements are not protected if malice can be shown.

Virginia is attempting to limit this forum shopping by creating a real anti-SLAPP statute along the lines of California’s statute. So far, the efforts have been unsuccessful. Maybe the Legislators like having celebrities come to town for their trials.

Bottom line. If you need to avoid California’s anti-SLAPP statute, and you have some jurisdictional basis to bring your action in a state without an anti-SLAPP statute, this is an option open to you. At least until all 50 states have such statutes.

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Judges Don’t Understand SLAPP Law

Ready for the most self-aggrandizing article you’ve eve read? What will surprise you even more is that it arises from a motion and appeal that I lost.

Here’s the self-aggrandizing part up front. I think my understanding of SLAPP law now surpasses the ability of judges and justices to understand. Or at least my ability to make them understand. Like Sheldon Cooper trying to explain string theory to Penny. At least that’s my argument and I’m going to stick to it. As the following story indicates (at least to me, being a legend in my own mind), I just see things others cannot.

Here’s the greatly altered fact pattern (to protect the innocent).

My client accused someone of being a bank robber on social media, and notified the police that said that person had robbed a bank. That party took umbrage with being called a bank robber, and sued for defamation. Part of the defamation he alleged was the report to the police.

Now some quick background to set the scene.

Many years ago I was retained to handle an appeal from a defamation case. The defendant had been hit with a one million dollar judgment arising from three alleged wrongs. He had (1) said bad thing about the plaintiff at an HOA meeting, (2) he had said bad things about the plaintiff to the police, and (3) he had allegedly crank called the plaintiff on a number of occasions.

As you probably immediately recognized, items 1 and 2 are clearly protected activities. Speech at an HOA meeting is protected speech under Civil Code section 425.16, as is a call to the police. These allegations should have been stricken, leaving only the crank phone calls.

But it did not play out that way. The attorneys had filed an anti-SLAPP motion, but this was before Beral v. Schnitt, and the judge ruled that the case could go forward since some of the allegations were not protected. He noted, however, that he was going to limit the case to just the prank phone calls, since the other allegations arose from protected speech.

Unfortunately, as is often the case, when it came time for trial, that judge was otherwise occupied and the case was reassigned to another judge. With no understanding of defamation law and privileges, the new judge didn’t limit the case to just the prank calls. The attorneys could not make the judge understand the applicable law, and he let all the issues go to the jury. He denied the motions in limine, and he even denied the proffered jury instructions that would have explained the concept of privilege.

Thus, the jury was allowed to award damages for the statements made at the HOA meeting, the statements made to the police, and the crank phone calls. If limited to the crank phone calls, this likely would have been a $1,000 judgment, but the jury was inflamed by the protected speech, and gave the huge award on that basis.

The lesson I learned from handling the appeal on this case is that you must strike these allegations by way of an anti-SLAPP motion, because they may escape every other challenge, with disastrous results.

Back to the alleged bank-robber. Read the rest of this entry »

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Stormy Daniels’ Action Against Trump Goes Down in Flames

Stormy Daniels Complaint on Fire
As I discussed back in October, adult film star Stormy Daniels was originally suing Donald Trump under a declaratory relief action, seeking to invalidate a “hush” agreement she has signed and been paid for. Her attorney, Michael Avenatti, then tried to get cute by filing a defamation action. The alleged defamation resulted from an incident that purportedly occurred in a parking lot, where Daniels says she was threatened to keep her mouth shut. Trump referred to the story as a “con job,” and Avenatti on behalf of Daniels claimed that amounted to defamation since Trump was accusing Daniels of lying. I predicted at the time that the action would be thrown out on an anti-SLAPP motion, and that proved to be true. Daniels was hit with $293,000 in attorney fees.

But following the dismissal of the defamation action, I pointed out that still left the original declaratory relief action. Since the attorneys have presumably spent far more time on that matter than the ridiculous defamation claim, I said that Avenatti might get the last laugh as to attorney fees if he was able to prevail on that claim.

Avenatti isn’t laughing.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Daniels’ Defamation Action Against Trump was Doomed from the Start

I have frequently warned about the path defamation claims can take, and it was illustrated once more by the kerfuffle between Donald Trump and Stormy Daniels.

Here is the pattern.

Way outside every controlling statute of limitations, a woman states she was assaulted by a man, and the man responds by going on social media or stating to the press that the assault never occurred. The woman then sues for defamation, claiming that by denying the assault, the man is calling her a liar. As a variation, the accused man sometimes comes right out and says she is lying.

It’s a tough situation for the accused. If he fails to deny the charge, then it will be assumed that it must be true, but if he does deny it, then he buys himself a defamation action. He was safe from legal action, but his words started a whole new statute of limitations on the defamation claim. This is precisely what happen when Bill Cosby denied raping various women, which lead to very different conclusions.

Defamation claims against Bill Cosby.

Read the rest of this entry »

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SLAPP025 – Anti-SLAPP Motion Defeats Gone With the Wind Actress

de Havilland v. FX Networks, LLC

If you sell t-shirts bearing the images of the Three Stooges, can you be sued for violating their right of publicity?

And if you create and broadcast an 8-part docudrama centering on Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, can Olivia de Havilland sue you for including the details of HER life in that story?

Well, the just decided case of de Havilland v. FX Networks, LLC answers both those questions.

I enjoyed this anti-SLAPP case because it beautifully illustrates how some judges just don’t understand precedent.

Olivia de Havilland, who is now 102 years old, did not like the way she was protrayed in the FX docudrama, “Feud: Bette and Joan,” centering on deceased actresses Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.

In case you don’t recognize the name, de Havilland portrayed Melanie in Gone With the Wind. She was the one Scarlett was always jealous of, as I recall.

She sued FX, claiming the portrayal of her in the show amounted to the unauthorized use of her name and likeness for commercial gain.

FX responded with an anti-SLAPP motion.

The trial court, Judge Holly Kendig presiding, denied the anti-SLAPP motion, relying in large part on a California Supreme Court decision called Comedy III Productions v. Gary Saderup, Inc.

FX appealed. Listen to Episode 25 to see how it all turned out.

What is the current status of the requirement that an anti-SLAPP motion be heard within 30 days of filing?

Previously, Fair Political Practices Commission v. American Civil Right Coalition, Inc. and Decker v. U.D. Registry had held that the 30-day requirement was jurisdictional. Now Karnazes v. Ares holds that it is the clerk’s burden to set the hearing within 30 days. But does that mean counsel is safe if a hearing is outside the 30-day deadline. Listen to find out.

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Aaron Morris, Attorney
Aaron Morris
Morris & Stone, LLP

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