I 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.
Always 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.
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.
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?
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.)