Victories

SLAPP013 – Bench Warrant Arrest Not Protected Activity under Anti-SLAPP Statute

California SLAPP Law Podcast

In Episode 13 of the California SLAPP Law podcast (should I have skipped 13, like they do in buildings?), we cover a lot of information that will be useful to any litigator.

Although not directly related to SLAPP law and anti-SLAPP motions, I discuss how and when to bring the various trial motions; Motion for Nonsuit, Motion for Directed Verdict, and the most powerful motion that no one seems to have heard of, the Motion for Judgment. If you’ve ever been confused about which ones are used in bench trials versus jury trials, when they should be brought, and which one is best to use, this podcast will clear it all up.

Then we move onto two recent anti-SLAPP rulings.

The first is Makaeff v. Trump University, LLC (9th Cir.) 715 F. 3d 254. I discussed this case back in Episode 9, but there has been a new development.

As you may recall, Makaeff took some business courses at Trump University, but then later sued, claiming the classes. Trump University countersued, claiming that Makaeff’s criticism of Trump University amounted to defamation. Makaeff responded to the suit with and anti-SLAPP motion. The district court denied the anti-SLAPP motion, but that denial was reversed on appeal. Now the victorious party on her anti-SLAPP motion, Makaeff brought a motion for attorney fees.

We discuss the number of hours Makaeff’s attorneys claimed to have spent on the anti-SLAPP motion and appeal, the opposition to the motion for attorney fees, and how the court responded.

In that context, we discuss Serrano v. Unruh (1982) 32 Cal.3d 621, wherein the California Supreme Court held that where an attorney overreaches in a fee application, fees can be denied in their entirety. Serrano cited to the following cases in reaching that conclusion.

See, e.g., Copeland v. Marshall, 641 F.2d 880, 902-903 [not allowable are hours on which plaintiff did not prevail or “hours that simply should not have been spent at all, such as where attorneys’ efforts are unorganized or duplicative. This may occur … when young associates’ labors are inadequately organized by supervising partners”]; Gagne v. Maher, 594 F.2d 336, 345 [excessive time spent]; Lund v. Affleck (1st Cir. 1978) 587 F.2d 75, 77 [if initial claim is “exorbitant” and time unreasonable, court should “refuse the further compensation”]; Reynolds v. Coomey (1st Cir. 1978) 567 F.2d 1166, 1167 [duplication of effort]; Farris v. Cox (N.D.Cal. 1981) 508 F.Supp. 222, 227 [time on fee petition denied for “overreaching”]; Vocca v. Playboy Hotel of Chicago, Inc. (N.D.Ill. 1981) 519 F.Supp. 900, 901-902 [fee denied in entirety on ground of counsel’s dilatoriness and hours claimed for clerical work]; Jordan v. United States Dept. of Justice (D.D.C. 1981) 89 F.R.D. 537, 540 [fee denied in entirety on ground of unreasonable request and inadequate documentation].

Next, we discuss Anderson v. Geist (2015) (no citation yet available). In Anderson, two deputies executed a bench warrant on a woman, not realizing the warrant had been withdrawn. The woman sued for defamation and a number of other claims. The deputies responded with an anti-SLAPP motion, claiming that the arrest was protected activity. Listen to the podcast to see if that strategy worked.

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SLAPP011 – Six Tips to Win Your Motion for Attorney Fees Following an Anti-SLAPP Motion

California SLAPP Law Podcast

In Episode 11 of the California SLAPP Law Podcast, I provide you with six tips to win your attorney fee motions following a successful anti-SLAPP motion.

There are so many unscrupulous attorneys who inflate their fee applications, that some judges feel the need to reduce the fees requested on any motion for attorney fees. To make sure you don’t get lumped in with the other attorneys, here are the ways to show the judge that every dollar is justified.

In other news, I bring you up to speed on Demetriades v. Yelp, which was discussed in Episode 10. Demetriades is suing Yelp to enjoin it from falsely advertising that its reviews are trustworthy. Yelp brought an unsuccessful anti-SLAPP motion, and even though the Court of Appeal held that the anti-SLAPP motion should be denied, Yelp is not going quietly into the night. It is seeking review by the Supremes.

Finally, we discuss a very entertaining case at Morris & Stone. As discussed in Episode 9, a company filed a bogus lawsuit against our client in an attempt to prevent him from competing. We responded with an anti-SLAPP motion, which stayed all discovery. The plaintiff is not pleased, since it wanted to use discovery to harass our client. I predicted that it also would not go quietly into the night, and that it would seek relief from the discovery stay. You’ll hear the arguments plaintiff’s counsel (unsuccessfully) made as to why the discovery stay does not apply to them. I’ll show you how I defeated their ex parte application as well.

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Morris & Stone Victory – Reducing Attorney Fees

Inflated Fee ApplicationsI am often brought in as an expert to oppose inflated attorney fee applications following an anti-SLAPP motion. Of course every case is different, but thus far I have never failed to get the requested fees reduced. Lest you be overly impressed, I will immediately note that I only handle a case if I agree that the attorney fees should be reduced. Sadly, there are far too many unethical attorneys who, after prevailing on an anti-SLAPP motion, view fee application as a winning lottery ticket, and greatly inflate the fees. In most instance my services are sorely needed to challenge the application, but there have been a few occasions where the fees being requested are reasonable in my opinion, and I inform the plaintiff and/or his attorney that I cannot opine that a reduction would be appropriate.

In today’s case, the fee application was of the all too common variety, where defense counsel grossly overstated the fees to which he felt entitled. In this case, the plaintiff had negligently filed a SLAPP, making the common mistake of seeking damages that flowed from fighting a legal action, claiming that the action was an “abuse of process”. When the defendant filed the anti-SLAPP motion, the plaintiff was educated as to the litigation privilege, and dismissed the challenged causes of action (others still remained). Rather than just bringing me in as an expert, the client decided to retain me to oppose the motion and prosecute the remaining causes. Read the rest of this entry »

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Morris & Stone Anti-SLAPP Victory – Witness at EEOC Hearing Protected

EEOC Shield

Every week I get callers complaining about the anti-SLAPP statutes and/or the litigation privilege. The scenario is almost always the same. The caller sued someone for defamation for something they said in conjunction with litigation or an investigation by some government agency, and the caller was hit with an anti-SLAPP motion. The caller is outraged that the anti-SLAPP motion is keeping him from getting damages for the allegedly false statements made in court or court documents.

The outrage is misplaced, because the law is working properly by preventing the callers from doing what they are trying to do. The legal system cannot function without a litigation privilege. That privilege provides that anything said in conjunction with litigation is privileged, and cannot form the basis for a defamation action. And since the speech is privileged, a plaintiff can’t make an end run around the statute by just asserting different causes of action. I have written on this topic before, and the prior article shows what the justice system would be like without the litigation privilege.

Today I argued an anti-SLAPP motion in Los Angeles Superior Court, and the facts of the case provide a real life example of why the litigation privilege is so essential.

Let’s call the plaintiff in this case John. John decided one day that his employer was discriminating against him, and filed a complaint with the EEOC on that basis. There was then a dispute with his employer, with the employer saying John had violated a company policy and John denying that claim. The employer fired John for the alleged violation. John argued to the EEOC that the termination for the alleged violation was just more evidence of discrimination.

The EEOC investigated John’s claims of discrimination, and during that investigation interviewed our client, who also worked for the company. We’ll call him Dave. Read the rest of this entry »

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Anti-SLAPP Victory — Shaheen Sadeghi v. Delilah Snell

Defamation Road Less TraveledI just wish counsel would run these cases past me before filing a defamation action. Here is a tale of a SLAPP that should have been spotted a mile away.

The tale starts with an article in OC Weekly. The article was about a guy named Shaheen Sadeghi. The article was extremely favorable to Sadeghi, referring to him as the “Curator of Cool” and discussing his amazing success in Orange County. OC Weekly even put his visage on the cover of the paper. Truly, it was a positive article that most would kill for.

But everyone has their detractors, and Sadeghi’s was a woman named Delilah Snell. After disclosing that Snell happens to be the girlfriend of a OC Weekly editor, the article reports on a dustup between Snell and Sadeghi, as told by Snell. Here is what the article said:

Still, some say Sadeghi will do whatever it takes to succeed. Delilah Snell, owner of Road Less Traveled, a shop in Santa Ana that sells environmentally friendly gifts and home goods, met with him in 2008 to discuss an opportunity to move to the Camp. (Full disclosure: Snell is the girlfriend of OC Weekly editor Gustavo Arellano.) She says the rent rate he gave was way too high, at least triple what she was paying, and she declined the offer. Then, she claims, he made a threat. “He basically said to me, ‘If you don’t move into my center, I will copy your business,'” she says.

Snell, co-founder of the Patchwork Indie Arts & Crafts Festival and a pioneer in Orange County’s eco-movement, believes her store is the model for the Camp’s SEED People’s Market, an airy, 12,000-square-foot gallery-type outlet that sells sustainable products and handmade crafts. Sadeghi owns the store with his wife, Linda. Snell claims that SEED has approached many of the vendors featured at Road Less Traveled and even used a photo of her shop in a promotional email sent out to customers. (The Weekly has a copy of the email.)

The article then goes on to tell Sadeghi’s side of the story:

Of Snell’s accusations, Sadeghi responds, “I think she’s full of it.” He says his business plan for SEED was dated “five years before she developed a business plan.”

“It’s a whole different store, whole different vibe,” he says, “and it has nothing to do with Road Less Traveled.”

The article then returns to singing the praises of Sadeghi, providing examples of how he is beloved by his tenants at his business centers like The Lab in Costa Mesa.

Sadeghi sued Snell in Orange County Superior Court, alleging in his complaint that Snell “orally accused Mr. Sadeghi of threatening to copy Ms. Snell’s business idea and plan if Ms. Snell did not move into Plaintiff’s retail center.” Sadeghi then alleged causes of action for slander, slander per se, libel, libel per se, invasion of privacy/false light, intentional interference with economic prospective advantage (sic), negligent interference with economic prospective advantage (sic), unfair competition, and injunctive relief. Whew! All arising from the statements Snell allegedly made to the OC Weekly, claiming that Sadeghi had said “If you don’t move into my center, I will copy your business.” Snell responded with an anti-SLAPP motion.

A quick aside to discuss the “Wall of Wrong”.

A potential client will call me, and during the call will tell me about 20 evil deeds committed by the defendant. In their mind, they have been horribly wronged, and they want to sue. Fair enough, but for a legal action each wrongful deed must be viewed independently to determine if it is actionable. I call the wrongful acts the “Wall of Wrong”, and each wrongful act is an item on that wall. (I considered calling it the Shelves of Wrong, but that didn’t seem as catchy.) I explain to the client that to determine if there is a case, we must walk up to the wall, take down each item and examine it independently to see if it will support an action. If not, it is tossed away never to be discussed again.

The reason this exercise is so important is because the client groups all the perceived wrongdoing together, and views it as a single act that certainly must support an action. But when all the conduct that does not support the action is stripped away, the client will often see that there is no action or that what is left remaining is pretty petty.

One more point to keep in mind in the defamation context is that just because something is false does not mean it is defamatory.

So let’s take Mr. Sadeghi to the Wall of Wrong to see if he has a case. Here, there are only two items to examine: (1) the claim that he was going to copy Snell’s business, and (2) that he pressured Snell to lease space in his center with the aforesaid threat. Let’s take those items off the shelf one at a time and decide if they will support a suit.

“I will copy your business.”

Sadeghi alleged that he never said he was going to copy Snell’s business. So, is it defamatory to falsely claim that someone said he was going to copy your business? Of course not. That statement, whether true or false, does not accuse Sadeghi of any wrongdoing. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. As the court put it in granting the anti-SLAPP motion, “Pepsi copies Coke. Gimbel’s Copies Macy’s. This is the nature of business.” Mr. Sadeghi, take that statement from the Wall of Wrong and never speak of it again.

Pressuring Snell to lease space.

Is it wrong to pressure someone to lease space in a mall? Of course not. But let’s refine that a little. Is it wrong to say you will copy someone’s business if they don’t lease space from you? Sometimes creating an analogous fact pattern makes it easier to analyze. Let’s say you have a chain of pizza restaurants, and a landlord comes to you and says, “we really want a pizza place like yours in our center, so we just want you to know that if you don’t lease the space, we’re going to create a pizza place just like yours for our center.”

Anything wrong with that? Sure, he’s pressuring you to rent the space with the threat of opening a competitor if you don’t, but that’s fair. When a landlord is looking for an anchor store in their mall, don’t you think they play Macy’s and Neiman Marcus off one another? Mr. Sadeghi, take that statement from the Wall of Wrong and never speak of it again.

So we are left with nothing on the Wall of Wrong, meaning that there is no case to pursue. This case should never have been filed, and the court properly granted the anti-SLAPP motion.

A SLAPP is not saved by numerous legal theories.

The other essential takeaway from this case is that nine causes of action do not a case make if the basis for the action is defective. In other words, if it was not defamatory for Snell to claim that Sadeghi said “If you don’t move into my center, I will copy your business,” then those words will not support any other legal theories like intentional infliction of emotional distress or unfair competition.

Further information about the case and the Court’s minute order can be found here, and the original article in question can be found here.

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An Employee’s Report to Human Resources is Protected by SLAPP Statute

Human Resources Internet DefamationAlways remember when reviewing a complaint to see if it is a potential SLAPP that the anti-SLAPP statute is not only about speech, it includes the right of redress. Then, whenever you see that the defendant has complained to someone — anyone — consider whether that is a natural step one would pursue in seeking redress.

We were the first firm (that we know of anyway) to successfully pursue an anti-SLAPP motion based on a report to a bank. Our client’s partner had opened a credit card in the name of the company, and when our client found out, he went to the bank and closed the account, informing the bank personnel that his partner had committed fraud. The partner sued for defamation, and we successfully brought an anti-SLAPP motion on the grounds that reporting the fraud to the bank was the first logical step dealing with the fraud. Stated another way, all would recognize that if our client had gone to the police and reported the fraud, that would be protected, but who would go directly to the police without first running to the bank to get the card cancelled in order to stop any false charges? The court agreed with my argument that the report to the bank is part of the same right of redress.

And so it was found in the just reported case of Aber v. Comstock. There, and employee brought a claim against her employer and two of its employees for sexual assault. Comstock, one of the employees who Aber was suing, filed a cross-complaint against Aber for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Comstock’s case was likely doomed from the start, because as I have already explained here, suing someone for suing will almost always be a SLAPP, and he even alleged that part of the defamation was the report to the police, which is clearly protected. Specifically, Comstock alleged that Aber “orally published false statements about COMSTOCK to third parties, including but not limited to, friends, employees of Wolters Kluwer, health care practitioners, and the police.” The court reviewed the law that applied to each of these statements, and the most interesting was the analysis of the statement Aber made to her employer’s HR representative.

Were Ader’s statements to the HR department protected under the SLAPP statute?

An earlier case (Olaes v. National Mutual Ins. Co.) had found that statements to a company’s HR department were not part of “an official preceding authorized by law” and therefore did not fall under the SLAPP statute. Here, however, the court noted that a U.S. Supreme Court case (Faragher v. City of Boca Raton) had found that the failure of an employee to take advantage of corrective opportunities afforded by the employer could be used as an affirmative defense against a claim by the employee. So, put them together. Aber did not have to report the alleged assault to HR, but had she failed to do so, then her subsequent action for the assault could have been defeated. Bingo. That makes the report to HR a necessary part of the right of redress, and pulls it into the anti-SLAPP statute.

The case was properly decided, but is a little concerning given the course the court followed. The justices shoe-horned the report to HR into the SLAPP statute by finding it was necessary in order to preserve the ultimate legal action. As we demonstrated with our credit card case, the standard need not be so stringent, and instead the determining factor should be whether the conduct was a natural part of the process.

Go here to see the complete decision in Lisa Aber v. Michael Comstock.

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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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Hacienda Heights Doctor, Pankaj Karan, Hit with $1.5 Million Judgment for Internet Defamation

In this case, we represented a business and the individual who owns that business. The defendant, a medical doctor named Pankaj Karan, was starting his own business, MDTelexchange, and traveled to an overseas company also owned by our client (we’ll call that the “foreign company”) and entered into a contract for the creation of some custom call center software.

And that is where the divergence in the two versions of the story begins. Our clients asserted (and proved at trial) that the working software was delivered on time by the foreign company. The defendant, Dr. Karan, claimed otherwise, and blamed the failure of his start-up company on the software.

Dr. Karan’s claims never made sense, because while the software would have been useful in his business, it was in no way essential. Blaming the software for the failure of the business was akin to saying a business failed due to a lack of business cards. But for whatever reason, Dr. Karan chose to blame our clients, and in an email announced that he was going to “work night and day to inflict the maximum amount of financial pain that is allowed under the law.” To that end, he ignored the fact that his contract was with the foreign company, and instead attacked our client personally, along with his other company, taking to the Internet to trash their reputations.

This is a scenario that I see over and over in defamation cases. Someone becomes unhappy with a business or individual, and decides to criticize them on-line. It might even begin with a laudable motive – just putting out the word to the public to avoid a business that did not satisfy the critic. I would defend to the death the right of anyone to go on line and publish a legitimate criticism of a business.

But something happens that takes the person beyond a legitimate review. As the person types the words, he or she decides it’s just not stinging enough and won’t cause enough harm. In this case, Dr. Karan must have felt that a legitimate review of the foreign company, stating that in his opinion the software did not work as promised or was not delivered on time, just wasn’t hurtful enough. He posted two articles on his own blog, and sent an email to our clients’ customers. In the email and postings, Dr. Karan’s comments had almost nothing to do with the alleged problems with the software. Indeed, he abandoned his claim that the software was late, and instead claimed that it had never been delivered at all. He added that our client had cheated an employer ten years earlier, and that his company had failed to pay vendors hundreds of thousands of dollars. Although our clients had never received a single complaint from a customer, Dr. Karan claimed that “they are swindlers of the highest kind and have milked many of their clients of money and time.”

At trial, Dr. Karan could not identify a single customer that our clients had “swindled”, he could not identify a single vendor they had failed to pay, could not specify how he had cheated his former employer, and acknowledged that the software was in fact delivered. Today, an Orange County jury, known for being very conservative with damage awards, awarded $1.5 million jointly and individually to both of our clients for the damage to their reputations and business, caused by Dr. Karan.

In a standard civil action, the plaintiff has the burden to prove the case. This is true in a defamation action as well, but since truth is a defense to defamation, the burden of proving a statement is true falls on the defendant. I can’t fathom how defendant thought he would get away with what he published in this email and on his blog, but I think he may have thought he would be safe because we could not prove a negative. In other words, how do you show that you have never defrauded any of your customers? Bring in every customer you have ever worked with to testify that you did not defraud them? That would be impossible, and that is why the law puts the burden on defendant to prove the TRUTH of the statements. Dr. Karan could not prove his statements were true.

[UPDATE — January 2, 2014]  Dr. Karan did not go silently into the good night. His attorneys appealed the $1.5 million verdict, claiming there was insufficient evidence to support an award of that size. To that claim, and in denying the appeal, the court opened its opinion with the sentence, “All things considered, appellant Dr. Pankaj Karan got off cheaply in the trial court.” Better yet, in commenting on our brief, the court stated:

[Dr. Karan] has misstated the record in numerous particulars, as shown in a respondents’ brief so devastating it has left Karan, like Job, with no reply but silence and a hand over his mouth.

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Anti-SLAPP Motions Often Used for Delay Purposes

Anti-SLAPP Appeal Platypus

The rare North-American anti-SLAPP Platypus.

 A few months back I won on an anti-SLAPP motion that I brought long after the case was filed. The thing is, I was not representing the Defendant initially, but when I was retained the first thing I saw from my review of the case was that the case was a quintessential SLAPP.  No discovery or anything beyond the complaint and answer had occurred, so I persuaded the court to allow me to bring a SLAPP motion well beyond the normal 60-day deadline.  I won the motion, the case was over, the client celebrated with champagne, and all was good with the world.

That case got some publicity, and now it seems like every attorney thinks they can file an anti-SLAPP motion at any time during the litigation, even on the eve of trial. It just happened to me today. Our case is nearly two years old, and the trial is about a month away.  All of a sudden, defense counsel decided that our action is a SLAPP, and it would be an unforgivable miscarriage of justice to allow this matter to go to trial without first bringing an anti-SLAPP motion. Indeed, this was such an emergency, that defense counsel had to go into court on an ex parte basis to ask the court to shorten the notice period to bring the motion because there is not enough time before the trial.  An ex parte application requires a showing of irreparable harm, and defense counsel so argued.

The anti-SLAPP motion, which was attached to the ex parte application, was utterly without merit, which is not surprising given that if the complaint was a SLAPP the defendant’s counsel certainly would have been able to reach that conclusion in the prior 22 months. Not surprisingly, the application DENIED.

Why would an attorney do such a thing? By Code, an anti-SLAPP motion is supposed to be brought within 60 days of service of the complaint. It can be brought later upon a showing of good cause to the court, but any delay is counterproductive. The point of an anti-SLAPP motion is to stop a SLAPP action from going forward, and stay the discovery. The discovery stay is one of its most powerful attributes, since the plaintiff is basically frozen in time and made to show his proof without the benefit of any discovery. If the motion is brought after discovery, the defendant loses the biggest advantage of the anti-SLAPP motion. And nothing changes during an action that somehow makes a complaint a SLAPP when it was not previously. In other words, discovery might reveal that an action is ripe for a motion for summary judgment, but it is very unlikely that discovery will reveal that an action was a SLAPP if that was not apparent from the complaint.

So, what possible justification could there be for this tactic of waiting until the eve of trial to bring a meritless anti-SLAPP motion?

Delay.

The ruling on an anti-SLAPP motion can be appealed. The judge today could have easily said, “Well, Mr. Morris, he is seeking only permission to file the motion on shortened notice; the motion is not yet before me, so I can’t decide its merits now. I’ll go ahead and let him file it, and then we can take a look at the merits.” If the judge had gone down that road, the defendant would have bought himself about a one year delay, since he would then have appealed the denial of the anti-SLAPP motion.

“Isn’t that a costly proposition for the defendant, given that you can recover attorney fees on a SLAPP motion?”, you might ask.  Actually, attorney fees are not reciprocal with an anti-SLAPP motion.  If the defendant successfully brings an anti-SLAPP, he gets his fees, but if the plaintiff defeats the anti-SLAPP, fees are only awarded if the motion was frivolous, and that is a very high standard.  Thus, beyond paying his own attorney, there was very little downside to attempting this delaying tactic.

This precise strategy was successfully employed in Platypus Wear, Inc. v. Goldberg. In that case, the defendant waited about a year to bring an anti-SLAPP motion. The trial judge, probably thinking he was being fair to give defendant a chance to present the motion, granted leave to file the motion, which was then denied. Of course, defendant appealed, and the Court of Appeal took the opportunity to explain that judges must not fall prey to this delaying tactic. The heart of the court’s reasoning is set forth at length below, if you are curious, but here is the essential part of the reasoning:

 

“The primary reasons that Goldberg offered, and that the trial court cited, for allowing the late filing of his anti-SLAPP motion were that doing so would serve both judicial economy and the public policy behind the anti-SLAPP statute. However, these reasons could apply to any late filing. Implicit in Goldberg’s argument is the premise that a trial court should hear any potentially anti-SLAPP meritorious motion, no matter how late in the case it is filed.

In this unusual statutory context, in which a party has the right to an interlocutory appeal of a denial of anti-SLAPP motion, a trial court must be wary about freely granting a party the right to file an anti-SLAPP motion past the 60–day deadline. As reflected in Olsen and Morin, the Legislature’s act in allowing an interlocutory appeal of the denial of an anti-SLAPP motion is clearly tied to the fact that the statute contemplates that most such motions will be filed within 60 days of the filing of the complaint.

Rather than advancing the anti-SLAPP statute’s purpose of promptly resolving SLAPP suits, the trial court’s ruling had the effect of undermining that statute, as discussed in Olsen.”

We are well award of the anti-SLAPP tricks, and as today’s victory illustrates, know how to stop them.



[Platypus Wear, Inc. v. Goldberg, 166 Cal.App.4th 772 at 783 – 787.]

“There are two potential purposes of the 60–day limitation. One is to require presentation and resolution of the anti-SLAPP claim at the outset of the litigation before the parties have undertaken the expenses of litigation that begin to accrue after the pleading stage of the lawsuit. The other is to avoid tactical manipulation of the stays that attend anti-SLAPP proceedings. The ‘prejudice’ to the opponent pertinent to these purposes is that which attends having to suffer such expenses or be subjected to such a stay. ( Olsen, supra, 134 Cal.App.4th at p. 287, 35 Cal.Rptr.3d 909.)

The 60 day period in which a defendant may file a SLAPP motion as a matter of right appears to be intended to permit the defendant to test the foundation of the plaintiff’s action before having to ‘devote its time, energy and resources to combating’ a ‘meritless’ lawsuit. [Fn. omitted.] ( Morin, supra, 122 Cal.App.4th at p. 681, 19 Cal.Rptr.3d 149.)

[B]y the time Goldberg filed his application on October 31, 2006, the parties had already completed a substantial amount of discovery, and the trial was scheduled to commence in less than three months. By the time the trial court held a hearing on Goldberg’s anti-SLAPP motion, on January 19, 2007, the December 15, 2006 discovery cut-off date had already passed, and the trial was scheduled to begin in a week. Thus, one of the basic purposes of the anti-SLAPP statute—to allow for the prompt resolution of disputes before significant pretrial discovery expenses are incurred—could not be met in this case. In fact, allowing the late filing undermined this goal, in that the trial court continued the trial date, at Goldberg’s request, after the hearing on the anti-SLAPP motion.

The primary reasons that Goldberg offered, and that the trial court cited, for allowing the late filing of his anti-SLAPP motion were that doing so would serve both judicial economy and the public policy behind the anti-SLAPP statute. However, these reasons could apply to any late filing. Implicit in Goldberg’s argument is the premise that a trial court should hear any potentially anti-SLAPP meritorious motion, no matter how late in the case it is filed. The Olsen court rejected this argument. ( Olsen, supra, 134 Cal.App.4th at p. 286, 35 Cal.Rptr.3d 909 [“Discretion to permit or deny an untimely motion cannot turn on the final determination of the merits of the motion”].) In addition, because Goldberg could have attempted to narrow the issues in the case by way of a motion for summary judgment or a motion for judgment on the pleadings, these rationales have very little persuasive force. (See Kunysz, supra, 146 Cal.App.4th at p. 1543, 53 Cal.Rptr.3d 779 [“The same issues raised by [defendant’s] renewed anti-SLAPP motion could just as easily have been raised by, for example, a motion for summary judgment or a motion for judgment on the pleadings”].)

The arguments Goldberg made at the hearing on his application are equally unpersuasive. Goldberg’s counsel’s explanation that Goldberg did not file an anti-SLAPP motion earlier because the case had been “focused on other issues,” is little different from the explanation the Morin court rejected, i.e., that the party had been “devot[ing] time, energy and resources,” to litigating the case rather than pursuing an anti-SLAPP motion.  (Morin, supra, 122 Cal.App.4th at p. 681, 19 Cal.Rptr.3d 149.)

Goldberg’s suggestion at the hearing that the trial court should grant his application to allow the late filing because his current counsel had not been counsel of record during the initial 60–day period is also without merit. Goldberg’s current counsel substituted into the case in March of 2005, far in advance of the October 31, 2006 application to allow a late filing. ( Olsen, supra, 134 Cal.App.4th at p. 285, 35 Cal.Rptr.3d 909 [“A claim of excuse from untimeliness based on late discovery after obtaining new counsel is generally unavailing”].) In addition, Goldberg’s counsel’s suggestion that Goldberg should be allowed to bring the anti-SLAPP motion in order to afford the trial court greater discretion to “parse causes of action,” is misguided, since an anti-SLAPP motion is not to be used for this purpose. (See Mann v. Quality Old Time Service, Inc. (2004) 120 Cal.App.4th 90, 106, 15 Cal.Rptr.3d 215

Goldberg has not demonstrated anything in the procedural history of this case, and specifically, in the litigation involving other parties, that would justify allowing the late filing. The lengthy delay in bringing the matter to trial occasioned by Luce Forward’s interlocutory appeal is, if anything, a factor that weighs against granting Goldberg’s application.

In this unusual statutory context, in which a party has the right to an interlocutory appeal of a denial of anti-SLAPP motion, a trial court must be wary about freely granting a party the right to file an anti-SLAPP motion past the 60–day deadline. As reflected in Olsen and Morin, the Legislature’s act in allowing an interlocutory appeal of the denial of an anti-SLAPP motion is clearly tied to the fact that the statute contemplates that most such motions will be filed within 60 days of the filing of the complaint. (See Olsen, supra, 134 Cal.App.4th at p. 287, 35 Cal.Rptr.3d 909; Morin, supra, 122 Cal.App.4th at p. 681, 19 Cal.Rptr.3d 149.)

While a trial court enjoys considerable discretion regarding whether to allow the late filing of an anti-SLAPP motion, in this case, the delay was extreme, the reasons Goldberg offered in his application for the delay in filing the motion were weak, the court’s reasons for granting the application were unrelated to the purpose of the SLAPP statute, and the potential prejudice to Platypus, given the lengthy delay occasioned by the appeal, is great. Rather than advancing the anti-SLAPP statute’s purpose of promptly resolving SLAPP suits, the trial court’s ruling had the effect of undermining that statute, as discussed in Olsen.

In applying the standard of review articulated in Olsen to this case, “[T]he grounds given by the court for finding the anti-SLAPP motion [timely] are inconsistent with the substantive law of section 425.16, [and] the application to the facts of this case is outside the range of discretion conferred upon the trial court under that statute, read in light of its purposes and policy.” (Olsen, supra, 134 Cal.App.4th at p. 285.)

 

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Aaron Morris, Attorney
Aaron Morris
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