You Can Now Be Sued for Calling the Police

Angry Plaintiff in Jail

California recently turned defamation law on its ear, as regards calling the police. Let me set the scene with a hypothetical that will demonstrate what California has done.

You and your neighbor Bob have an ongoing dispute about whether your visitors can park on the street in front of his house. During a small gathering at your home, you happen to look out the window and see Bob spray painting “no parking!” on one of your guests’ cars. You report the incident to the police, and after seeing paint on Bob’s fingers matching the paint on the car, they take him away for booking.

Bob is quite a jerk, and is already on probation for a prior criminal offense. If he can’t figure out a way to beat this rap, he is going to spend some time in jail. So he comes up with a brilliant strategy.

He decides he will sue you in civil court for defamation, claiming you lied when you told the police that you saw him vandalizing the car. Whether or not he will win is of no importance. Rather, his plan is to make you spend tens of thousands of dollars fighting his defamation claim. You will soon realize that you really gain nothing by having Bob prosecuted, beyond seeing justice done. You will at some point ask yourself, “is that justice worth the $50,000 or more I am going to spend on attorneys, fighting against this defamation claim?”

Far beyond the cost, Bob’s lawsuit against you will give him all kinds of opportunities to harass you. His attorneys can make you spend most of your free time responding to discovery, and he can even make you show up at the time and place he chooses, and sit across a table from him while his attorney asks you personal questions at a deposition. Heck, he might even decide to take the deposition himself just so he can have the personal satisfaction of making you answer whatever questions he decides to ask you over the course of seven hours. He can bring in every person who was at your house and put them through the same experience.

The standard for what is relevant is very broad in litigation. Since his claim is that you made up the entire story about him vandalizing the car, he is permitted to try and determine what motivated you to do such a horrible thing. Do you have a thing for his wife, and were trying to get him out of the way? Or maybe you have a thing for him, and are mad that it is unrequited.

Since he will be seeking punitive damages, and such damages are based on your income and net worth, he can ask you to turn over all your financial information. There are protections against this, but you will spend thousands to have your attorney fight the discover demand in court.

Ultimately, you may decide that the cost of justice is just too high. You will go to Bob and offer to drop your criminal charges if he will dismiss his defamation action. Bob gets away with vandalizing your friend’s car, and you are out however much money you spent before you decide to cave.

Relax, it was just a nightmare.

Until this year, this scenario was entirely fictional. You see, for a statement to be defamatory, it must be UNPRIVILEGED. There are various types of speech that are privileged, even if false. One example is statements that are made in court. Imagine a scenario where a witness could be sued for defamation for what they say in court. They are compelled by subpoena to appear and testify, only to then be sued for defamation for what they said. This would be completely untenable, so California law prohibits legal action based on testimony in court.

The same was true of reports to the police. Specifically to avoid the sort of scenario discussed above, California Civil Code section 47, which establishes a number of privileges, prohibited actions based on reports to the police.

That did not mean that one could lie to the police with impunity. First of all, making a false police report is a criminal act, and could land the liar in jail. Further, if someone lied to the police about you, and you were charged and put on trial, but proved you were innocent, you could then sue the person for malicious prosecution.

But you could not sue that person for defamation, or infliction of emotional distress, or negligence, or any other claim. As confirmed by the California Supreme Court in Hagberg v. California Federal Bank, reports to the police are absolutely privileged, and cannot be the basis for any legal action. No one ever needed to worry about being sued because they called the police.

Now you need to worry.

But, insanely in my opinion, the California Legislature just decided to change all that with an amendment to Civil Code section 47.

The protective language is still there:

“A privileged publication or broadcast is one made: . . . (b) In any (1) legislative proceeding, (2) judicial proceeding, (3) in any other official proceeding authorized by law . . .” Case law has determined that part (3) covers reports to the police.

But the Legislature giveth and taketh away. Effective this year, it added subpart (b)(5):

“(5) This subdivision does not make privileged any communication between a person and a law enforcement agency in which the person makes a false report that another person has committed, or is in the act of committing, a criminal act or is engaged in an activity requiring law enforcement intervention, knowing that the report is false, or with reckless disregard for the truth or falsity of the report.”

To this some will respond (and the Legislature probably so reasoned) that there is nothing to worry about, so long as you don’t make a false report to the police. If that was your reaction, then you did not fully comprehend my long-winded hypothetical.

Even if your report to the police was as pure as the new-driven snow, that will not protect you from all the described harassment. Every criminal can now claim that the report against them was knowingly false, or was made with reckless disregard for the truth. Once the claim is made, it must be litigated.

And lest you think there will be some quick way to extricate yourself from this nightmare, there is not. For example, the motion that can sometimes get rid of a case before trial will be of no use. A motion for summary judgment cannot be granted if there is a material factual dispute. In our hypothetical, you could bring a motion for summary judgment on the grounds that your statement to the police was true, because you saw Bob vandalizing the car. But Bob will simply file a declaration saying he did not vandalize the car, and throw in a couple more from friends, claiming they saw him lounging in his pool the entire time. Triable issue; motion denied.

What about an anti-SLAPP motion?

The anti-SLAPP statute, Code of Civil Procedure section 425.16, contains that same protective language as section 47:

“(e) As used in this section, “act in furtherance of a person’s right of petition or free speech under the United States or California Constitution in connection with a public issue” includes: (1) any written or oral statement or writing made before a legislative, executive, or judicial proceeding, or any other official proceeding authorized by law . . .”

I find it strange that the Legislature elected to create the right to sue for reports to the police by taking away the privilege in section 47, but left the protection unchanged in section 425.16. It would appear that the new found freedom to sue remains thwarted by the anti-SLAPP statute.

Or perhaps not.

Even though the wording is the same, case law holds that the protection (previously) afforded by section 47 does not serve the same purpose as that of section 425.16. Pointing to the latter section will determine whether the speech falls under the anti-SLAPP statute, but then that leads to the second prong, to determine if the plaintiff is likely to prevail. That will now be decided under the new section 47.

Plus, we again run smack into the evidentiary standards. For purposes of an anti-SLAPP motion, the evidence of the plaintiff is taken as true. The defendant’s evidence is reviewed only to determine whether it supports a defense that negates the claim. Going back to our hypothetical once again, the result will be the same. The plaintiff will provide a declaration stating that he never vandalized the car, and that must be taken as true. You are going to be in this action until the bitter end.

What was California thinking?

According to the notes of the legislation, the Legislators apparently thought this was a brilliant way to fight discrimination. You may recall the incident in Central Park, caught on video, where a white woman called 911 to report a black man who was complaining about her dog. I don’t know if the Legislators had that specific incident in mind, but it must have been something similar, based on the comments:

“(a) It is the intent of the Legislature to end instances of 911 emergency system calls that are aimed at violating the rights of individuals based upon race, religion, sex, gender expression, or any other protected class. Existing law on false police reporting does not address the growing number of cases in which peace officers are summoned to violate the rights of individuals for engaging in everyday activities, such as those individuals essentially living their lives.

“(b) All Californians, including people of color, should have the liberty to live their lives, and to go about their business, without living under the threat or fear of being confronted by police. These prejudicial 911 emergency system calls cause mistrust between communities of color and institutions, and those calls further deteriorate community-police relations. This is especially true when the police are summoned as forces of exclusion. Thus, it is incumbent upon the Legislature to end the use of law enforcement as a personal force by people who harbor discriminatory animus.

“(c) This act is not intended to discourage individuals who are facing real danger, who want to report a crime, or who are experiencing a medical or psychiatric emergency from making a 911 emergency system call for assistance. However, this act will allow those who have been subject to unfair and prejudicial 911 emergency system calls to regain their agency by seeking justice and restitution through the criminal and civil court system.”

This sounds like a laudable goal, but the amendment could have been tailored to better achieve that goal, without opening the floodgates to every criminal who wants to use civil actions as a means to harass genuine victims. How will they “regain their agency?”

The Litigation Privilege and Collateral Defamation Actions

Spawning Litigation Actions
I get the same question a couple of times a week, so I decided that a article on the litigation privilege is in order, so I will have a place to send potential clients for a detailed discussion. (I also briefly discuss the police report privilege.)

The question from potential clients almost always comes up in the context of wanting to start a collateral action* for defamation in response to something that is being said in some other court action. Here are the most common examples:

— A husband is going through a divorce, and his wife or a witness or the wife’s attorney filed a declaration with the court stating that he was physically abusive to the children. He wants to file an action against his wife (or the witness or the attorney) for defamation for the false claims made in the declaration.

— Someone is seeking or has obtained a restraining order against the caller, and in support of the request for a restraining order the person filed false declarations and gave false testimony in court. The caller has absolute proof, including emails and recordings, showing that the statements were false. The caller wants to sue for defamation because of all the false statements, which are now a matter of public record.

— An attorney sent a letter to an employee’s employer, claiming that the employee stole property and trade secrets from his former employer, and threatening to sue if the property is not returned or if the employer makes use of any of the trade secrets. Based on the letter, the company fires the employee rather than to run the risk of a lawsuit. The employee did not take any property from the former employer and is not using any trade secrets, and wants to sue the former employer and its attorney for defamation.

— An employee is suing for wrongful termination, and the deposition of one of his former co-workers is taken. At that deposition, the co-worker falsely claims that she was sexually harassed by the employee suing for wrongful termination. As a result of this claim, the court grants a motion for summary judgment and throws out the action, and the employee’s marriage is severely strained because of the claim of infidelity. The employee wants to sue the co-worker for defamation for what she said at her deposition.

— A person is sued for fraud, and in the complaint there are dozens of false allegations, stating that the defendant engaged in illegal conduct and made misrepresentations to the plaintiff in order to cheat her out of money. After the complaint is served, the plaintiff dismisses the action, but the complaint is now a matter of public record, and anyone doing a search on the Internet can find this complaint with all its lies. The defendant wants to sue for defamation.

Statements Made in Conjunction with Litigation are Privileged

None of the above circumstances would permit an action for defamation. A quick definition is necessary to explain why. Defamation requires an UNPRIVILEGED false statement. Therefore, if a statement is privileged, it cannot be defamatory.

The statements that are privileged are set forth in Civil Code section 47, which states in part:

47. A privileged publication or broadcast is one made . . . (b) In any (1) legislative proceeding, (2) judicial proceeding, (3) in any other official proceeding authorized by law . . . .

Thus, any statement made in conjunction with a “judicial proceeding” is privileged, and cannot form the basis of a defamation action. It’s that simple.

When I explain this to potential clients, I typically get a response that goes something like this:

“So you’re telling me, they can falsely accuse me of rape, and there’s NOTHING I can do about it?!”

“Well, your question was whether you could sue them for defamation, and no, you cannot sue them for defamation.”

“But I can prove that they knew what they said was false.”

“It’s not a question of being able to prove it’s false, you can’t sue them for defamation if the statement is made in conjunction with litigation.”

“So you’re telling me, they could falsely claim I murdered 50 people, and there’s NOTHING I can do about it?!”

And so it goes, with the caller coming up with greater and greater examples of outrageously false statements, apparently thinking that I will ultimately see the foolishness of what I am claiming, and respond, “Oh, well, if he falsely accuses you of killing 20,000 people, then THAT would be enough to sue for defamation.”

It doesn’t work that way. The litigation privilege is absolute, and once you understand the public policy behind this rule, you will probably agree that it is essential. I will also show you why it really doesn’t make any difference in the grand scheme of things.

A World Without the Litigation Privilege

Imagine a legal system without the litigation privilege. Let’s put you into a garden variety personal injury action as an example. You went to a bar and had a couple of beers, but you were there for many hours, so you were stone cold sober on your drive home. When you stopped for a red light, someone rear-ended you, and you are now suffering serious back problems as a result. You are suing the person who rear-ended you for your medical expenses and pain and suffering.

During discovery before the trial, the attorney representing the defendant who rear-ended you contacts your family members and employer, and asks them about your “drinking problem.” Following the conversation with the attorney, your boss calls you in and says you will no longer be permitted to use the company car, because he has concerns about your drinking.

The bartender is deposed and testifies that he saw you drinking before the accident, and recalls that you had ten beers, when in fact you only had two.

At trial, the defendant testifies that you stopped abruptly in the middle of the road for no reason, and that is what caused the accident. He claims that when you got out of the car, you apologized for the accident, stating that you were too drunk to be driving. Both statements are false.

As a result of the testimony of the bartender and the defendant, the jury finds in favor of the defendant. In the hallway following the verdict, the jurors all tell you that you should seek help for your drinking problem. You have to pay thousands in court costs to the defendant.

In this world without a litigation privilege, what do you do? Well, you can’t let stand all those false claims, so you file two more actions, suing the bartender and the defendant for defamation. For good measure, you file a third action against the attorney for talking to people about your alleged drinking problem.

Thus, your one action has now spawned three more. Now, when you testify in those three actions that the bartender, defendant and attorney were all lying, how should they respond? They can’t allow those accusations to go unchallenged, so they each file lawsuits back against you for calling them liars. Our original personal injury action has now spawned six new actions. In fact, since you claimed that the person who rear-ended you was negligent, and he proved that he wasn’t, he probably already sued you for lying about him in the first action.

And there is a collateral effect. The bartender testified to what he thought was the truth. He remembered you as having ten beers, but he had confused you with someone else and was just wrong. For coming to court and telling what he thought was the truth, he bought himself a lawsuit. He now must pay an attorney thousands of dollars to defend him against your defamation action. Would anyone ever agree to testify in court if they could be sued for what they say? They could be compelled to attend with a subpoena, but you can bet they are going to testify that they don’t remember anything in order to avoid being sued.

Thus the reason for the ABSOLUTE litigation privilege. If you allow anyone to be sued for what they say in conjunction with a lawsuit, the system would fall apart. Every action would spawn many more, and the courts would be unable to keep up. No one would be willing to testify, so cases would often be impossible to prove.

The frustration of the callers is understandable, especially when they have proof that the statements were false. They understand generally the reasons for the litigation privilege, but feel that there must be an exception when there is irrefutable proof that the other side knowingly make false statements. But consider that for a moment. If there was an “I have absolute proof that the witness knew he was lying” exception, how would that work? That exception would defeat the rule, because then anyone could file an action claiming to be in possession of such proof. The action would still have to be litigated in order to look at the proof.

The only “exception” is that the statements have to made in furtherance of litigation. Anything said in court or in a court document is obviously privileged, but so too are the statements by the attorney when he contacted potential witnesses.

Collateral Actions Accomplish Nothing.

Before you rail against this necessary public policy, claiming that there should be a consequence for lying, understand also that it really doesn’t make much difference. Here is why.

A caller will tell me that during divorce proceedings, his wife lied about him abusing the children, and as a result he got limited visitation. He wants to sue for defamation for all the lies about the abuse.

But wait a minute. “Didn’t you explain during the divorce proceedings that you did not abuse the children?”, I ask.

“Yes, and all my family members testified that I was a wonderful father who never hit my children, the children testified that I never hit them, and we had an expert witness, a social worker who testified that there was no indication that I ever abused the children.” But my wife testified that I did beat the children, some of her friends testified that long before the divorce she had told them about me beating the children, and her expert witness testified that the behavior of the children was indicative of abuse by the father. For whatever reason, the judge believed her witnesses and not my witnesses.”

“OK, so with every opportunity to tell your side of the case, the judge did not believe you and you lost. Why would the result be different in a new case?”

“Well I have more witnesses, and she introduced hospital records of one of my children being taken to the hospital for a broken finger, and claimed that I broke that finger, but I can prove that I was away on business on that day.”

“Did something prevent you from introducing those travel records to the judge in the divorce action?”, I ask.

“Well, no, but it was so obvious that I did not abuse the children I didn’t think I needed to.”

So you see why a collateral action, even if permitted, would not accomplish anything. If the party could not prove their position in one court, there is no reason to believe they will have a different result in another. And if there was more evidence that could have been presented, it should have been presented in the first action. The strong public policy supporting the litigation privilege does not need to bend to give you a second bite at the apple – just put on all your evidence in the first action. If despite all your evidence the judge gets it wrong, then you should appeal from that case, not file a new one.

Be honest with yourself, and you will have to admit the real reason you want to bring a collateral action.

If the following does not apply to you, then don’t be offended. In the vast majority of cases, when someone calls wanting to sue for defamation for something said in a court document, their real motive has nothing to do with wanting to clear their name. Conceptually, it makes no sense to bring a separate action to prove the falsity of a statement made in pending litigation, for all the reasons already stated. If you didn’t abuse the children, prove it in the divorce proceeding.

Indeed, the oft-stated reason for bringing the action is because all the lies told in court are now a matter of public record, and the caller wants to clear his name. If so, then his name needs to be “cleared” in the same action, so anyone seeing that public record will see the truth. Winning in a separate action would do nothing to correct the record in that other action.

The real reason the person is calling wanting to file a separate action — one that they will often deny — is they are seeking leverage. They reason that if they can file a separate action and expose the witness or party to civil liability, or just the cost and annoyance of having to deal with the second action, that will pressure the person to alter or withdraw the testimony. That is not a proper purpose for legal action.

Does that mean you are completely without remedy?

Lying on the stand or in a declaration is perjury, which is a criminal offense. If you can prove that the person knew what they were saying was false, then by all means file a police report. The police cannot become a back-door court of appeal, deciding who was lying, so the standard remains the same. If you could not prove your point in the first action, then the lie that you claim was perjury will probably not be black and white enough for the police to pursue it.

Also, the statement is only privileged if it is made in conjunction with the litigation. That is a very broad definition. The statement does not need to be in a court document, but it must advance the litigation. That is why the attorney talking to the family members about your drinking problem was privileged. But if that same attorney calls a press conference and discusses your alleged drinking problem, you could then sue for defamation since that does nothing to advance the litigation.

A few words about limited privileges.

Thus far, I have discussed only the litigation privilege, which is absolute. There are a number of privileges, and some of them are only limited privileges. With a limited privilege, the person can be sued for defamation if it can be shown that the statement in question was made with malice. In those cases, it is not enough to show the statement was false, you must show that the person made the statement with malice or reckless disregard for the truth.

The Common Interest Privilege is the most prevalent privilege with only limited immunity. This privilege is set forth in Civil Code section 47(c), which provides:

A privileged publication or broadcast is one made: . . .

(c) In a communication, without malice, to a person interested therein, (1) by one who is also interested, or (2) by one who stands in such a relation to the person interested as to afford a reasonable ground for supposing the motive for the communication to be innocent, or (3) who is requested by the person interested to give the information. This subdivision applies to and includes a communication concerning the job performance or qualifications of an applicant for employment, based upon credible evidence, made without malice, by a current or former employer of the applicant to, and upon request of, one whom the employer reasonably believes is a prospective employer of the applicant. This subdivision authorizes a current or former employer, or the employer’s agent, to answer whether or not the employer would rehire a current or former employee. This subdivision shall not apply to a communication concerning the speech or activities of an applicant for employment if the speech or activities are constitutionally protected, or otherwise protected by Section 527.3 of the Code of Civil Procedure or any other provision of law.

As you can see, this is a very broad privilege, giving limited immunity to anyone who is speaking to another, so long as they have a good faith belief that the person to whom they are speaking is interested in the subject matter.

Note also that this section destroys the cherished belief held by many that when you look for work and your prospective employer calls for a reference, your former employer can’t say anything bad about you. Also in the employment context, this is the section that prevents you from suing an employee for telling lies about you to management (unless you can show those lies were told with malice).

Here is the actual jury instruction on the limited (also referred to as the “qualified privilege”):

1723. Qualified Privilege (Civ. Code, § 47(c))

Under the circumstances of this case, [name of plaintiff] cannot recover damages from [name of defendant], even if the statement(s) [was/were] false, unless [he/she] also proves that [name of defendant] acted with hatred or ill will toward [him/her].

If [name of defendant] acted without reasonable grounds for believing the truth of the statement(s), this is a factor you may consider in determining whether [he/she] acted with hatred or ill will toward [name of plaintiff].

Note that the jurors are specifically instructed that they cannot award damages even if the statements were false, unless the plaintiff proves that the defendant acted with malice. Thus, the burden is on the plaintiff, and that is a tough burden to meet since it involves getting into the defendant’s head.

I see this often in the sexual harassment context. A woman reports to HR that she is feeling sexually harassed by a coworker, and as a result of that report, the coworker is investigated and possibly even fired. The report by the woman is privileged because HR would certainly want to know if an employee is sexually harassing another. It may be that the coworker did something innocent like offering to get the woman a cup of coffee, but if the woman took that as sexual harassment, the fact that she was 100% wrong does not translate her reporting the incident into a malicious act, and she would be protected by the limited privilege.

Finally, note that the quantum of harm does not determine whether a defamation action exists. If the common interest privilege applies and no malice can be shown, then the fact that the false report of sexual harassment destroyed the coworker’s marriage and caused him to be fired, does not create a defamation action. Again, defamation requires an UNPRIVILEGED statement, so if the statement was privileged, then it can never be morphed into defamation no matter how much damage it caused.

* Collateral Action or Attack — A legal action to challenge a ruling in another case. For example, Joe Parent has been ordered to pay child support in a divorce case, but he then files another lawsuit trying to prove a claim that he is not the father of the child. A “direct attack” would have been to raise the issue of parenthood in the divorce action.

SLAPP032 – The 3 Most-Often Miscited Anti-SLAPP Cases

California SLAPP Law

We begin Episode 32 with the discussion of how Morris & Stone just defeated an anti-SLAPP motion. I reveal the common (and fatal) mistake made by defense counsel when they pursue anti-SLAPP motions.

And on the topic of mistakes, based on my prior article, we turn to the three cases that counsel almost always cite improperly when defending against an anti-SLAPP motion. Listen and find out what these three cases really stand for:

Nguyen-Lam v. Cao (2009) 171 Cal.App.4th 858.

Weinberg v. Feisel (2003) 110 Cal.App.4th 1122.

Flatley v. Mauro (2006) 39 Cal.4th 299.

Finally, in the after-show, I reveal a successful strategy to obtain a trial continuance, even when the judge has already said no.

Three Common Mistakes by Defense Counsel on Anti-SLAPP Motions

Mistakes

Like shooting fish in a barrel (although I have never understood why, if the fish are already in a barrel, there would be any need to shoot them).

I (telephonically) attended oral argument on an anti-SLAPP hearing this morning, and it again demonstrated that attorneys are just not thinking through their motions. I was brought in to defend against the motion. In reviewing the motion, I immediately recognized that the attorney for the defendant had made three major mistakes, any one of which would likely guarantee denial of the motion.

Just the facts, ma’am.

This case involves one of those horrible situations where someone stops taking care of their home, and it eventually falls into such disrepair that the government has to step in and mandate repairs, with the threat of selling the home.

The homeowner (the defendant in our case) went along with the process. The homeowner’s insurer actually stepped up and paid for the repairs, and Defendant agreed to all of the planned construction. But in the end, he did not feel that the home had retained its original character, and took to the internet to vent against our client, the contractor who had performed the repairs.

As is so often the case, Defendant was not satisfied to merely tell the true story, explaining why he was unhappy. In these situations, Defendants want to hurt the business they blame for their travails, so they embellish. He made up more and more lies, to the point that he was saying the contractor was never authorized to make repairs, and had “stolen” the insurance proceeds.

Before I was involved, the contractor had sued Defendant for defamation. I was brought in to oppose the anti-SLAPP motion.

Mistake #1 – Failing to follow Baral v. Schnitt.

An anti-SLAPP motion is a “Special” Motion to Strike, but it remains a motion to strike.

Baral v. Schnitt sets forth the process for seeking to strike individual allegations of a complaint. It begins with IDENTIFYING those allegations in the notice of motion. If you fail to identify what you are seeking to strike, then the motion becomes an “all-or-none” proposition. If all you ask for is that the complaint, or individual claims, be stricken under the anti-SLAPP statute, then you will lose if there are sufficient allegations for the claim to survive.

In this case, the argument could be made that some of the allegations should be stricken. For example, the attorney had alleged that it was defamatory for the Defendant to state that the house was a “hovel.” That’s a matter of opinion (although I would have argued that the statement still questioned the professionalism of the contractor, and case law holds that such background statements do not necessarily need to be stricken).

Instead of identifying what he wanted stricken, defense counsel had simply stated that the court could strike individual allegations. It doesn’t work that way. It would violate due process for the court to strike allegations, when I have not even been informed which allegations the Defendant is seeking to strike. Such would not fly on a traditional motion to strike, so it is equally inappropriate on a special motion to strike.

Mistake #2 – Thinking that discussions of investigations are privileged.

I have seen this so many times, and I’m not totally sure it’s a mistake, since some judges appear not to understand the law.

Here’s how it works. If a party is in court, and testifies that the opposing party cheats on their taxes, they are safe from a defamation claim, even if the statement is false. The testimony would clearly be protected by the litigation privilege.

But if that same person goes onto the internet, and says, “hey world, opposing party cheats on their taxes, and I testified about it in court today,” that does not fall under the litigation privilege. To fall under the litigation privilege, the speech must ADVANCE the purposes of the litigation. Admittedly, that can be a broad standard. I’ve seen situations where an out of court statement to a non-party is still found to fall under the litigation privilege, because it is determined that the party could have been a potential witness, and it was therefore necessary to make the statements to that party. But blogging about a lie you told in court will not be protected, even though it was “about” the matter being litigated.

In our case, the defense counsel argued that everything the Defendant wrote on line was protected, because there had been an investigation by the California State Licensing Board, so he was really just discussing that case. That’s not how it works.

Mistake #3 – Failing to recognize that you won’t be able to overcome the Plaintiff’s declaration.

There is no weighing of evidence on an anti-SLAPP motion. The Plaintiff’s evidence must be taken as true, unless it is deficient for some other reason, such as being based on hearsay.

Before spending significant time and money on an anti-SLAPP motion, defense counsel must always first ask, “will Plaintiff be able to present evidence that, if taken as true, would make him the prevailing party?”

Simple example. I represented an oral surgeon. He sued for defamation when the Defendant posted a number of outrageous lies about him. She was obviously unhappy with the work, but she had to embellish. In her online review, she added the claim that my client had pushed a scalpel through her cheek. She knew this was untrue. Indeed, she had posted pictures following the procedure, thinking they showed that she was unnecessarily “puffy.” (An outrage to be sure.) They did not show any puncture wound.

So why did the attorney think he could successfully bring an anti-SLAPP motion under these facts? My client’s declaration truthfully stated that he had not punctured the patient’s cheek during the process. That had to be taken as true, even if Defendant filed a declaration stating that he “really, really, really did pierce my cheek.”

In the contractor case, the Defendant’s postings were basically all about what she perceived to be defective work, and how my client was in cahoots with the insurer. Why would the attorney think the motion would be granted? My client simply truthfully attested to how all the work was done properly, and that he was not in cahoots with the insurer. Motion denied.

The process I follow when I am considering an anti-SLAPP motion is to first determine if any of statements we are defending can be shown to be false with a simple declaration from the Plaintiff. (Which is not to say my client’s statement was false, only that Plaintiff can so claim.) If so, then I only proceed if there are other individual allegations I want to strike, that would not be vulnerable to a declaration, such as statements of opinion or other statements that would be absolutely privilege, despite what the Plaintiff might say.

 

The Top Three anti-SLAPP Cases Every Defense Attorney Cites, Whether they Apply or Not

anti-slapp slippery slope

Although the legal community appears to have come far in the past 30 years as regards awareness of the anti-SLAPP statute, it is still often the case that when I bring an anti-SLAPP motion, the plaintiff’s attorney is caught totally unawares. Even in those cases where I have warned opposing counsel of my intention to bring the motion, it is usually apparent that they thought it would not be an issue, based on some miscomprehension of what the statute covers.

This leaves them to scramble to try and find some basis to challenge the anti-SLAPP motion, and in doing so they inevitably cite to one or more of the following three cases. Sadly, they almost always cite these cases in ways that do not apply.

I will identify the top three cases cited by defense counsel, and explain why they almost never apply. Read the rest of this entry »

SLAPP031 – A Gambler Bets Wrong on the Anti-SLAPP Statute

California SLAPP Law

In Episode 31, in addition to an anti-SLAPP case, we examine another example of how opposing counsel blew an opposition to our Motion for Summary Judgment, by being unaware of the procedure rules.

The limit for the memorandum of points on a typical motion is 15 pages, but a motion for summary judgment is a big deal, so the rules graciously allow 20 pages for that type of motion. The same rule applies to the opposition. But this attorney offered up a 60 page memo. How did we use that error to seal his doom? Listen to Episode 31 to find out.

Next we turn to the case of Mike Postle, a professional gambler. Some accused Postle of cheating at a particular poker tournament. He took umbrage with that, and sued 12 of his accusers. We would have told poor Mr. Postle the tale of Joe the Alcoholic, which made clear that he could not prevail on his defamation claim. Listen for all the details, and the only possible silver lining in Postle’s debacle.

 

SLAPP030 – Is it Defamatory to Call Someone a “Crook?”

California SLAPP Law

Fun, fun, fun in the California sun at Morris & Stone.

In just the past couple of weeks, we (1) Obtained a 3.9 million dollar defamation verdict for one client; (2) Got another client out of a 7 million dollar case on a motion for summary judgment, and (3) Were awarded our fees following a successful anti-SLAPP motion, even though the motion did not dispose of every cause of action.

In Episode 30 of the California SLAPP Law Podcase, we discuss the facts of the aforementioned anti-SLAPP motion, and the motion for attorney fees that followed. This particular anti-SLAPP motion presented some really interesting issues, as did the motion for attorney fees.

As to the anti-SLAPP motion, we examine whether it can ever be defamatory to call someone a crook. It might seem so, but how exactly does one define a crook in order to offer evidence that one is not a crook?

As to the motion for attorney fees, how does the court handle such a request when the underlying anti-SLAPP motion was only partially successful?

Along the way, we are again reminded why it is so crucial to know the procedural rules governing any motion you bring.

SLAPP029 – Can Attorneys Sue Their Clients for Malicious Prosecution After a Fee Dispute?

In episode 28, we discussed the attorney who sued his own client for malicious prosecution. The client had challenged the fees charged by the attorney by way of the informal fee arbitration process, and when he lost the attorney turned around and sued for malicious prosecution.

Incredibly, the court denied our motion, so we had to take it up on appeal.

The Court of Appeal agreed with our position that a fee arbitration cannot be the predicate for a malicious prosecution case, and therefore the attorney could not possibly prevail on the second prong of the anti-SLAPP analysis.

In Episode 29, we discuss the court’s decision, as well as the motion for attorney fees that followed. The attorney provided a 65-page report from an expert witness who challenged our fees and hourly rate, but the judge was having none of it.

SLAPP028 – An Exception to the Absolute Police Report Privilege?

Some of our anti-SLAPP cases are breaking new legal ground through some very interesting fact patterns.

Penal Code section 11172

You are probably aware that certain professionals are required to report any child abuse situation of which they become aware. Penal Code section 11172 was created in order to afford those mandated reporters immunity against defamation claims potentially arising from their reports. But that same statute includes the following wording as regards persons who are not mandated reporters:

Any other person reporting a known or suspected instance of child abuse or neglect shall not incur civil or criminal liability as a result of any report authorized by this article unless it can be proven that a false report was made and the person knew that the report was false or was made with reckless disregard of the truth or falsity of the report, and any person who makes a report of child abuse or neglect known to be false or with reckless disregard of the truth or falsity of the report is liable for any damages caused.

But hold on Maude. Civil Code 47 and Code of Civil Procedure 425.16 both afford what has always been held to be an absolute privilege for reports to the police. Does Penal Code section 11172 carve out an exception? Listen to Episode 28 for the answer.

Can an attorney sue for malicious prosecution based on a fee arbitration?

Ahhh, the benefits of hindsight.

Episode 28 of the California SLAPP Law Podcast was recorded almost a year ago, but I never got around to editing and posting it. In addition to reporting on our recent victories at that time, it included the tale of an anti-SLAPP motion that had not gone in our favor, and was still up on appeal. I promised at the time to report on the results of the appeal. [Spoiler alert: We won on appeal and the anti-SLAPP motion was granted.]

As I was editing the podcast today, I was struck by the fact that it seemed to come from another era; like finding a journal entry where you referred to stopping at a pay phone or expressed how much you liked your Angel Flight pants. I discuss how I traveled to San Francisco to argue the case to the Court of Appeal. Can you imagine? Actual, face-to-face argument to the court? What an archaic notion.

In the next episode of the California SLAPP Law Podcast I will report on the opinion by the Court of Appeal, but if you can’t wait, you can read all about it on the California SLAPP Law website.

You’ve got to know when to fold them . . .

Finally, I tell the tale of a plaintiff who just did not know when to fold them . . . know when to walk away . . . know when to run.

We defeated her case with an anti-SLAPP motion. It was apparent each step of the way that her counsel just did not know the law in this area. Ever helpful, we explained each step of the way what we were going to do if he proceeded with his plans, and what it would cost his client. After spending probably tens of thousands of dollars in activities we advised against, Plaintiff had to finally pay the piper.

FilmOn.com v. DoubleVerify – Supreme Court Further Defines “Issue of Public Interest”

FilmOn.com v. DoubleVerify
Time to discuss the very important opinion by the California Supreme Court in the case of FilmOn.com v. DoubleVerify. To fully understand this opinion and the reasoning behind it, it is necessary to read the entire opinion, because it beautifully builds from the roots of the anti-SLAPP statute all the way to the ultimate conclusion. But in case you don’t have that kind of time, I’ll summarize it up front, and then offer a guided tour through the opinion.

The Facts and Legal Holdings of FilmOn.com v. DoubleVerify.

FilmOn.com Inc. (FilmOn) is a for-profit business entity that distributes web-based entertainment programming. In this case, FilmOn sued DoubleVerify Inc. (DoubleVerify), another for-profit business entity that offers online tracking, verification and “brand safety” services to Internet advertisers. In other words, DoubleVerify offers its conclusions about sites and content, so advertisers can be sure their ads do not end up in places they might consider to be inappropriate. FilmOn did not like what DoubleVerify had reported to its clients, and sued DoubleVerify for trade libel, tortious interference with contract, tortious interference with prospective economic advantage, and violation of California’s unfair competition law.

DoubleVerify responded by filing an anti-SLAPP motion to strike, which was granted by the Los Angeles County Superior Court, Judge Terry Green presiding. The Court of Appeal agreed with Judge Green’s conclusion that DoubleVerify’s reports “concerned issues of interest to the public” because “the public has a demonstrable interest in knowing what content is available on the Internet, especially with respect to adult content and the illegal distribution of copyrighted materials.” To support its conclusion, the court analogized DoubleVerify’s confidential reports to ratings by the Motion Picture Association of America, writing, “the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) engages in conduct quite similar to DoubleVerify’s activities by rating movies concerning their level of adult content, and the MPAA does so, because the public cares about the issue.”

It is always a hail Mary to appeal to the California Supreme Court, but surprisingly the Court elected to take up this matter, “to decide whether the commercial nature of a defendant’s speech is relevant in determining whether that speech merits protection under the catchall provision. To resolve this question, we also clarify how the context of a statement more broadly – including the identity of the speaker, the audience, and the purpose of the speech – informs the same analysis.”

In a unanimous decision, the Supremes reversed the Court of Appeal, and sent the case back to Judge Green for an order denying the anti-SLAPP motion. In essence, as I have repeated here a hundred times, the Court found that context is everything. It found that determining whether the ratings issued by DoubleVerify are a matter of public interest is not viewed in a vacuum. Rather, even if it is concluded that the speech is a matter of public interest, that speech must be in furtherance of the speech on the topic.

It is by carefully observing this wedding of content and context that we can discern if conduct is “in furtherance of” free speech “in connection with” a public issue or issue of public interest. (§ 425.16, subd. (e)(4).) What this union of content and context lets us discern in this case is that DoubleVerify’s report does not qualify for protection under the catchall provision of the anti-SLAPP statute.

Read the rest of this entry »

Aaron Morris, Attorney
Aaron Morris
Morris & Stone, LLP

Tustin Financial Plaza
17852 17th St., Suite 201
Tustin, CA 92780

(714) 954-0700

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NOTICE PURSUANT TO BUSINESS & PROFESSIONS CODE SECTION 6158.3: The outcome of any case will depend on the facts specific to that case. Nothing contained in any portion of this web site should be taken as a representation of how your particular case would be concluded, or even that a case with similar facts will have a similar result. The result of any case discussed herein was dependent on the facts of that case, and the results will differ if based on different facts.

This site seeks to present legal issues in a hopefully entertaining manner. Hyperbolic language should not be taken literally. For example, if I refer to myself as the “Sultan of SLAPP” or the “Pharaoh of Free Speech,” it should not be assumed that I am actually a Sultan or a Pharaoh.

Factual summaries are entirely accurate in the sense of establishing the legal scenario, but are changed as necessary to protect the privacy of the clients.