Posts Tagged ‘SLAPP’

Anti-SLAPP Victory: Reality Television is Free Speech

storage warsThe reality show “Storage Wars” has created a case that offers some important anti-SLAPP (and litigation) lessons.

In December, David Hester filed a lawsuit against A&E Television Networks alleging that producers of Storage Wars rigged the reality-television series by salting storage lockers with valuable items before they were auctioned off to buyers. The producers deny the claim, pointing out that they have no access to the lockers before they are sold, but it could be that they are adding the items with the assistance of the buyers, after the purchase, to make the show more entertaining. After all, if the show was nothing but lockers full of expired National Geographic magazines, that would get boring fast. But I digress.

According to his lawsuit, Hester was told that his contract would be renewed for season four, but after complaining about the “fraud” that was being perpetrated on the viewers, he was told his services would no longer be required. He sued A&E and another entity for wrongful termination (huh?), breach of contract, breach of the covenant of good faith, unfair business practices, and declaratory relief.

Lesson 1:  For every wrong, there is not necessarily a remedy.

Some attorneys just never get this. If I hire you for my television show, and I have the contractual right not to renew that contract at some point in the future, and you do something I don’t like, such as telling me you don’t like the way I am running the show that I’m paying you $750,000 to be on, then I just may decide not to keep you around. You are not some bastion for the public, given the task of making sure my show is pure. All reality shows are faked to some extent, and the viewers all know they are faked (although, incredibly, I did once run into a guy who thinks Ghost Hunters is totally legit).

It may stink that Hester got “fired” for wanting to keep the show honest, but if he wanted to make sure he never got fired for criticizing the show, the he should have added a “you may not fire me when I tell you your show stinks” clause to his contract.

Lesson 2:  A faked reality show is an expression of free speech.

Can you sue Stephen King when you find out Pet Sematary [sic] is not based on reality? Then why did Hester and his counsel think they could sue A&E for its fictional Storage Wars? Not surprisingly, A&E’s attorneys asked the same question in the form of an anti-SLAPP motion. The motion was a no-brainer, because it involves a free speech issue of public interest, bringing it within the anti-SLAPP statute, and there was zero chance of Hester prevailing on at least one or more of his causes of action, so the second element was a lock. Read the rest of this entry »

Texas Judge Still Unclear on SLAPP Law

Internet Defamation SucksI came across this humorous article that combines local politics and what certainly appears to be a SLAPP suit, although the judge couldn’t see it.

I get about one call a week that begins with the statement, “We’ve got to do something about this SLAPP law.”  In every instance so far, the caller thinks the SLAPP statute is a really bad idea because they filed a SLAPP, and got hit with an anti-SLAPP motion.  “We’ve got to do something about this SLAPP law” translates to “this SLAPP law really stinks because it is keeping me from suing someone who said something I don’t like.”

For a real-life example of the very purpose of the SLAPP suit, and the machinations that can pop up when someone tries to avail themselves of the SLAPP statute, go to Bullies: The Story of a SLAPP Suit Gone Wild.

By the way, this story presents a lesson that everyone should have figured out long ago. If your name is, say, Melissa Kingston, you should at the very least own the domain name melissakingston.com. The reasons are myriad. At the very, very least, Ms. Kingston may someday become a famous author, and would want to be able to promote her books on that website. Also, if another Melissa Kingston gets the name first and puts up a website about devil worship, some might mistakenly think she is the one promoting herself as the devil’s spawn.

Finally, and the relevant point to this article, owning your name on the Internet is very cheap insurance. If someone takes a dislike to you and [yourname].com is just sitting there ripe for the plucking, your detractor can buy that name and get into all kinds of mischief. It’s not bullet proof protection by any means — seeing that [yourname].com is taken, the detractor will just settle for [yourname]sucks.com — but the latter name is automatically recognizable as a protest site, whereas the former is not. Right now, if you have not done so already, go to Go Daddy and check on the availability of your name, and if it is there, buy it. The cost to own your name on the Internet is about 87 cents per month, and that includes a free landing page, where you could post your favorite picture or quote if you can’t think of anything else to do with it for now.

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.

Saying Your Letter Cannot be Published Does Not Make it True

In a prior posting, I discussed how ineffectual cease and desist letters are, and how some recipients of such letters will even post them as a sort of badge of honor.

In an apparent attempt by some attorneys to keep from having their letters published, I have now seen a number of instances where the attorney sending the letter adds the following language:

“You are not authorized to disclose the contents of this letter publicly or to disseminate it…”

Some even go so far as to claim that the letter is copyrighted, asserting that by publishing the letter the recipient will be violating copyright law. This is all hogwash, but I suppose the attorneys reason that the recipient may not know that it is hogwash, and it may prevent some of them from putting up the letter and making fun of the attorney and his or her client for sending it.

For a great example of this, and how instead of achieving the intended purpose it only invited greater comment, check out this amusing article by techdirt. The article is also a great example of not knowing when to hold them, and when to fold them.

I learned long ago to view every letter I draft as a potential trial exhibit. Don’t send a letter you would not want to see projected onto a wall for the judge and/or jury to view and critique. That rule now applies to the Internet. If an attorney feels the need to insert language falsely claiming that the recipient is not allowed to show it to anyone else, then that is a letter that probably should not be sent.

Show Some Love for California’s Anti-SLAPP Statute

A real Jones for the Basketball coach

Not the coach in question.

I get frequent calls from people who have run afoul of the anti-SLAPP statute, basically asking, “what can we do about this terrible law?”

Here’s the deal. Every law eventually gets subverted. The Americans With Disabilities Act sounded like a great idea, but then you ended up with attorneys who use it as an extortion racket, forcing fast food restaurants to pay thousands because a counter was 17 ½ inches high instead of 18.

So it is with California’s anti-SLAPP statute. It is a great statute, and for the most part attorneys have not found an effective way to misuse it, except for right to appeal an adverse decision, which many now use as a delaying tactic. Opposing counsel in one of my cases recently brought a motion for permission to file a very late (by two years) anti-SLAPP motion on the eve of trial, and when the motion was quite properly denied, then filed an appeal from that denial. Of course I had no difficulty getting the Court of Appeal to dismiss the frivolous appeal, but it delayed the trial a month. Except for this type of abuse, in most other regards California’s anti-SLAPP law provides a very useful tool to get rid of lawsuits designed to silence free speech or frustrate the right of redress.

However, in case you still have it out for California’s anti-SLAPP law, I bring you an example out of Illinois that should make you feel a little better. California pioneered the anti-SLAPP concept, and most states have used that law as a template, but that hasn’t prevented some from coming up with their own strange hybrids.

Enter the case of Steve Sandholm, a high school basketball coach/athletic director in Illinois. In the case of Sandholm v. Kuecker, some parents decided they didn’t like Sandholm’s coaching style, so they really went after him, hoping to get him replaced. They posted useful, positive comments such as “[he is] a psycho nut who talks in circles and is only coaching for his glory.” The efforts were to no avail, because the school board decided to keep him. However that decision only fanned the flames, and the parents kept up their campaign. Sandholm found some of the statements to be defamatory, so he brought a defamation action.

But wait. Illinois has an anti-SLAPP statute that states that speech and petition activities are “immune from liability, regardless of intent or purpose, except when not genuinely aimed at procuring favorable government action, result, or outcome.” Wow that’s a broad standard. A school district is a government entity, and the parents were trying to get that government entity to do something (removing the coach), so did that fall under Illinois’ anti-SLAPP statute? If I read the statute correctly, that means that even if the parents got together and decided to fabricate lies about the coach, they are immune from a defamation action so long as those lies were “genuinely aimed at procuring a favorable government . . . outcome.” (I’m not saying that happened, I’m only using the case to present a hypothetical.) And how in the world is a court going to determine if the actions were “genuine”?

Incredibly, that’s exactly how the Court of Appeal interpreted the statute. Read this excellent summary of the case by John Sharkey to see just how convoluted the anti-SLAPP process can become.

Anonymous Blogger Turns Case International, and Results in Anti-SLAPP Motion

International Anti-SLAPP MotionAn international defamation action has ended up here in California. Out of the UK, Tyneside councillors (that’s the way they spell it over there) are very upset that an anonymous blogger who calls himself “Mr. Monkey” has been defaming them.

The council has backed a three-year hunt to discover the identity of Mr. Monkey, with the legal fees now exceeding six figures. So far, since they did not retain Morris & Stone, the attempts to uncover the identity of Mr. Monkey have been unsuccessful.

Enter Coun Ahmed Khan, a councillor from a rival political party. The four plaintiff councillors successfully moved to have Khan’s personal computer records disclosed, because they apparently suspected him of being Mr. Monkey. Khan denies that he is the primate in question, but has cried “enough is enough”, and wants to put an end to the search.

To that end, he brought what I can only characterize as an offensive anti-SLAPP motion (not offensive as in crude, but as in the opposite of defensive). He intervened in the San Mateo Superior Court action and filed an anti-SLAPP motion, asserting that even though he is not Mr. Monkey, the comments of Mr. Monkey are protected and the action should therefore be dismissed.

Motion DENIED. Indeed, the court found the motion to be so frivolous that it awarded attorney fees of £40,000 to the plaintiffs. (I once obtained a judgment in Los Angeles Superior Court in British pounds. It’s worth it just to see the court clerks try to figure out how to enter it into the system and calculate interest and the like.)

Khan has now appealed the denial of his anti-SLAPP motion and the award of attorney fees. The complete story can be found here.

District of Columbia Struggling With Anti-SLAPP Law

The District of Columbia instituted an anti-SLAPP procedure back in March but the judges are having a heck of a time figuring it out. (Don’t feel bad D.C., California has had a SLAPP statute since 1992, and some judges still don’t get it.)

Judge Rufus G. King III of the D.C. Superior Court got it right. A local television station did a report on the ridiculous amounts of overtime that was being paid to certain government officials. In one reported case of a fire department Lieutenant, his annual salary was $90,000 but he had earned as much as $119,000 in overtime pay one year.

That Lieutenant took exception with the fact that the news story had used terms like “racked up” and “month after month”, claiming those statements were defamatory. His attorney apparently failed to explain or he refused to understand that only the “gist” of the statement need be true in order to defeat a defamation action, so he filed a defamation action against the television station, and the station quite properly brought an anti-SLAPP motion.

Judge King ruled that the report was a matter of public interest and therefore fell under the anti-SLAPP statute, and that the Lieutenant failed to demonstrate a likelihood that he could establish damages. Motion GRANTED, case DISMISSED. Good job D.C.

But then there was Judge Richard Leon. You may recall that a U.S. Department of Agriculture official named Shirley Sherrod left her job after a video was released, seemingly showing her confessing to discriminating against white farmers. It later came to light that the comments were arguably taken out of context due to the editing of the video. Sherrod didn’t appreciate that, and sued blogger Andres Breitbart, among others, asserting in her complaint that the “deceptively edited” clip constituted defamation. Breitbart responded by bringing an anti-SLAPP motion, asserting that the posting of the clip was an act of protected speech.

Sure sounds like a SLAPP to me, but Judge Leon denied the motion out-of-hand with only a two sentence order. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit was stumped by that one as well, and today ordered Judge Leon to explain himself.

Less than a week ago, Judge Robert L. Wilkins out of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia was not nearly as concise as Judge Leon, and issued a 55-page opinion denying an anti-SLAPP motion, finding “that the special motion to dismiss procedure under the Anti-SLAPP Act does not apply to a federal court sitting in diversity.”

 

The Good, The Bad, and The SLAPP Lawsuit: Don’t Sue For Speech Without Consulting With Counsel

I came across the following article by Darren Chaker who, according to the article, spent many years litigating a free speech case, apparently as the plaintiff.  His article provides a nice summary of SLAPP law as it applies to posting critical comments on-line, and the  importance of consulting with counsel before filing any free speech suit.  [Reprinted here with permission.]

___________________

While legitimate criticism is protected, postings which constitute defamation are not. Ibid.; see also Chaker v. Crogan, 428 F.3d 1215, 1223 (9th Cir. 2005). The Supreme Court has explicitly held that “defamation…[is] ‘not within the area of constitutionally protected speech.'” R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul, 505 U.S. 377, 383 (1992) (quoted in Chaker, supra, 428 F.3d 1215, 1223 (9th Cir. 2005)).

Prior to filing a lawsuit for comments posted online, it is important to know what a “SLAPP” lawsuit is and if what you believe is defamation is that, or merely protected speech. The acronym “SLAPP” stands for Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, see California Code of Civil Procedure § 425.16. I cite California law, however most states have similar SLAPP laws as California. The crux of SLAPP law allows someone who is sued for doing activity which is protected by the federal or state constitution. If the Defendant’s activity sued for is protected activity, then an anti-SLAPP motion could be filed. An anti-SLAPP motion usually seeks dismissal of “lawsuits that ‘masquerade as ordinary lawsuit’ but are brought to deter common citizens from exercising their political or legal rights or to punish them from doing so.” Batzel v. Smith, 333 F.3d 1018, 1023-24 (9th Cir. 2003).

Keep a couple of things in mind before you go to court:

• Once a Plaintiff files a lawsuit, and Defendant files an anti-SLAPP motion, the complaint is frozen. Thus, Plaintiff cannot amend the lawsuit to avoid the court ruling on the anti-SLAPP motion. (Simmons v. Allstate Ins. Co. (2001) 92 CA4th 1068, 1073) Amendments could frustrate the Legislature’s objective of providing a “quick and inexpensive method of unmasking and dismissing such suits.” See, Simmons at p. 400)

• Plaintiff has the option to dismiss the lawsuit. Nonetheless, Code of Civil Procedure § 425.16 gives the trial court limited jurisdiction to decide whether to award attorney fees and costs to Defendant. (Law Offices of Andrew L. Ellis v. Yang, supra, 178 CA4th at 879, 100 CR3d at 777-778)

• A typical California attorney with 10+ years of experience bills from $325-500/hr. If a person files a lawsuit based on defamation, or other protected right, and loses, the court must award attorney fees to “adequately compensate the defendant for the expense of responding to a baseless lawsuit,” Dove Audio, Inc. v. Rosenfeld, Meyer & Susman, 47 Cal. App. 4th 777, 785 (1996). As such, if you lose your case, attorney fees of $12,000-25,000 are typical.

• If you are self represented, this doesn’t buy you any credit with the court for suing someone for doing what the law allowed them to do (e.g. free speech). Self-represented litigants are held to the same standard as those represented by trained legal counsel. (Rappleyea v. Campbell (1994) 8 Cal.4th 975, 984- 985)  Thus, you can’t say in opposition, “Opps I didn’t know”.

In short, I strongly recommend do NOT file a lawsuit unless an attorney, who is competent in First Amendment law, agrees to file it for you.

I litigated a cutting edge First Amendment case for 7 of its 10 year lifespan. Chaker v. Crogan, 428 F.3d 1215 C.A.9 (Cal.),2005, Cert. denied, 547 U.S. 1128, 126 S.Ct. 2023, invalidated a statute on First Amendment grounds and overruled the California Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in People v. Stanistreet, 127 Cal.Rptr.2d 633. Soon after Chaker v. Crogan, it was also used to strike down Nevada’s analogous statute forcing the legislature to rewrite the law and used as the backbone authority in Gibson v. City of Kirkland, 2009 WL 564703, *2+ (W.D.Wash. Mar 03, 2009). My case continues to be a leading case on viewpoint discrimination. My case is active, living and breathing-forever helping people who once felt oppressed.

Article Source: http://EzineArticles.com/?expert=Darren_Chaker

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.)

 

Blogger Hit With $2.5 Million Judgment

I guess she could consider it a victory.  A blogger by the name of Crystal Cox was sued for $10 million by Obsidian Finance Group for comments Ms. Cox posted on obsidianfinacesucks.com.  Representing herself, she managed to keep the judgment to just $2.5 million.

Seriously though, nothing in the case went Ms. Cox’ way.  She brought an anti-SLAPP motion and claimed that she was protected by the New York Times actual malice rule, as well as the reporter’s shield.  But the judge was not convinced.  Judge Marco Hernandez of the U.S. District Court in Portland held that a blogger is not a journalist.  As such, Cox was caught in a catch-22.  She would not be required to reveal her source if she fell under the shield law as a journalist, but without such protection she could not reveal her source without subjecting him to liability, and without that background information, could not prove what she was saying was true.

As to the New York Times actual malice rule, which holds that defamation can be found only upon a showing of actual malice where the plaintiff is a public figure, the court concluded that the plaintiffs were not public figures.

Complicating the matter further, Cox was late in bringing her anti-SLAPP motion (although the judge stated the result would have been the same even if it had been filed on time).

The concerning part of the decision arises from the court’s discussion of what makes one “media.”   Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323 (1974), held that a plaintiff should not be able to recover damages from a media organization without proof that the reporter was at least negligent and may not recover presumed damages absent proof of “actual malice.”  After rebuking Cox for failing to specify any authority for the proposition that a blogger can be media, the court then proceeds to set forth seven indicators that make one “media” without absolutely no authority for those points.

According to Judge Hernandez, Cox failed to show she was media because there was no evidence of “(1) any education in journalism; (2) any credentials or proof of any affiliation with any recognized news entity; (3) proof of adherence to journalistic standards such as editing, fact-checking, or disclosures of conflicts of interest; (4) keeping notes of conversations and interviews conducted; (5) mutual understanding or agreement of confidentiality between the defendant and his/her sources; (6) creation of an independent product rather than assembling writings and postings of others; or (7) contacting ‘the other side’ to get both sides of a story. Without evidence of this nature, defendant is not ‘media.'”

In my never to be humble opinion, those made-up criteria by Judge Hernandez are about 20 years out of date.  “Affiliation with a recognized news entity”?  The reason that so many “traditional” news outlets are folding is because of the rise of citizen reporters, with no affiliation with any organization and who may or may not have any journalistic background or education.

Nonetheless, the takeaway here is that bloggers are not immune from liability if they stray across the line and engage in defamation.  I don’t know what Cox reported about Obsidian Finance Group, so the judgment may have been well deserved.  Still, it gives pause to know that a blogger is now straddled with a huge judgment that cannot be discharged in bankruptcy and therefore will likely dog Ms. Cox for at least the next 20 years.

Go here for a more detailed discussion of the judgment, as well as a copy of that judgment.

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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