Author Archive

What is a SLAPPback Action?

Woman holding mug with the word stress

I am often asked to pursue SLAPPback actions, and find that the requests usually arise from a misunderstanding of the basis for such an action. I will explain here the basics of a SLAPPback action and why, at least in my practice, the circumstances that would justify a SLAPPback seldom arise.

What is a SLAPPback Action?

SLAPPback actions are created and governed by Code of Civil Procedure section 425.18. Section 425.18(b)(1) defines SLAPPback:

“SLAPPback” means any cause of action for malicious prosecution or abuse of process arising from the filing or maintenance of a prior cause of action that has been dismissed pursuant to a special motion to strike under Section 425.16.

That simple definition should clear up much of the confusion. A SLAPPback is simply a malicious prosecution action brought by a defendant who successfully brought an anti-SLAPP motion that resulted in a dismissal of the original action. It could also take the form of an abuse of process action, but that will seldom be the case, as I will explain below.

Note also that a SLAPPback is an entirely new lawsuit. The defendant, having successfully extracted himself from legal proceedings by way of a successful anti-SLAPP motion, jumps right back in by filing a malicious prosecution action. I sometimes get requests to bring a “SLAPPback motion,” but as you can see there is no such beast.

Why are SLAPPback actions so rare?

Conceptually, every successful anti-SLAPP motion could be followed by a SLAPPback action. By definition, if an action is dismissed on the basis of an anti-SLAPP motion, then it had no merit. To survive an anti-SLAPP motion the plaintiff need only show that his claim has “minimal merit.” If it could not even meet that standard, then it almost certainly was brought without probable cause; one of the necessary elements of a malicious prosecution action.  Read the rest of this entry »

SLAPP034 – Are Calls to the Police Still Protected Speech?

In Episode 34 of the California SLAPP Law Podcast, we examine the amendment to Civil Code section 47, which changed calls to the police from being absolutely privileged, to only conditionally privileged. Attorneys who sue for calls to the police, do so at their peril, as opposing counsel learned.

And we are happy to report that Morris & Stone created a new legal precedent, having to do with what we have long referred to as “all-or-nothing” anti-SLAPP motions. In Baral v. Schnitt, the California Supreme Court held that individual allegations of protected speech can be stricken from a complaint. But what if a defendant brings an anti-SLAPP motion that asks only to strike the entire complaint? How should the court handle it, when the defendant then changes course, and asks in the reply brief for individual allegations to be stricken?

Listen to Episode 34 for the answer.

Are Online Reviews of Businesses Always Protected by the Anti-SLAPP Statute?

Sick puppy in bed.

The legal pendulum swings, and attorneys who don’t stay current with anti-SLAPP law will likely be surprised by this new reality concerning online reviews.

As anti-SLAPP law developed through court decisions, one of the issues that needed to be decided was whether online reviews are a matter of public interest, such that they would fall under the first prong of the anti-SLAPP analysis.

I recall that while this issue was still in flux, I represented a client who had posted an online review about an attorney, who then sued her for defamation. I brought an anti-SLAPP motion, and argued vigorously that the review was indeed a matter of public interest because such reviews are useful to members of the public in deciding which professionals to hire.

A not very thoughtful judge in San Bernardino was shocked that a client would discuss the competency of their attorney in public. He denied my anti-SLAPP motion, stating that “the proper venue for such concerns is with the State Bar.”

Thankfully, the attorney in question was more thoughtful than the judge, and realized that the ruling would not survive on appeal, so he dismissed the action. While I did not win the battle, I won the war for my client.

My position – that online reviews are a matter of public interest – became the law of the land (not because it was my position, but because it made sense), and that position has been pretty sacrosanct for probably the last 20 years.

But as Bob Dylan sang, “the times they are a-changin’.” Recent decisions, and the judges in some of my recent cases, have been willing to listen to an equally persuasive counter-argument. Read the rest of this entry »

Well that didn’t take long – An anti-SLAPP victory based on my “all or nothing” case decision

Ace up his sleeve

As I explained in this earlier article, on December 27, 2023 (a slightly delayed Christmas present) the Court of Appeal issued an opinion in one of my cases that adopted my “all-or-nothing” reasoning as regards anti-SLAPP motions. You can go to the article for greater detail, but here is the concept in a nutshell.

The California Supreme Court case of Baral v. Schnitt held that an anti-SLAPP motion can be used to strike individual allegations of protected speech. Some courts had previously used a “gravamen” approach, whereby they would try to define the gravamen of a claim, to determine whether an entire cause of action could be stricken based on allegations of protected speech. If the gravamen of the claim was based on the protected speech, the entire cause of action could be stricken, even if it was a mixed cause of action. Baral held that a court does not need to think only in terms of the entire cause of action, but instead could strike individual allegations, and still allow the claim to go forward if allegations of unprotected conduct were sufficient to support the claim.

But it always takes some time for attorneys to “get the memo,” so even after Baral, attorneys continued to ask only that entire causes of action or the entire complaint be stricken, and would not specify individual allegations they wanted to be stricken. That practice continues to this day, even though Baral is now nine years old. (Nine years! I guess I should stop referring to it as “the recent decision of Baral v. Schnitt” in my briefs.)

Nonetheless, despite the lack of any request to do so, and with no notice to opposing counsel, courts would sometimes take it upon themselves to pick out the allegations of protected speech, and order them stricken. That would make defendant the prevailing party, entitling them to attorney fees.

I have for quite some time argued that is unfair and a violation of due process. A court is not supposed to grant relief that was not requested. Like any other motion, with an anti-SLAPP motion, the moving party files the motion, the plaintiff gets one chance to respond, and the moving party then gets to file a reply. What would always happen is the moving party would seek to strike the entire complaint, they would receive my persuasive opposition, and they would back peddle and state in their reply that “even if the court does not strike the complaint as requested, is should strike paragraphs 7, 23, and 47 of the complaint.”

How is that fair? I never had the opportunity to address whether those allegations should be stricken. Now, as a practical matter, I probably did address those allegations in opposing the anti-SLAPP motion, but my response would have been more focused on those specific allegations if a request to strike them was pending.

I always argued that if the defendant asked only that the entire complaint be stricken, then that is the only determination the court can make. I referred to this as an “all or nothing” motion. Even if the court should determine that the complaint is based in part on protected speech, it cannot grant the motion if there are sufficient allegations of unprotected speech to support the claims.

But the courts never had to address my all or nothing argument, because they would deny the opposition’s motion without going into that analysis.

And then came the decision of Paglia v. Hamilton, where the Court of Appeal finally embraced my all or nothing analysis. True to form, after I filed a bullet proof defamation action, defendant nonetheless filed an anti-SLAPP motion, making crazy arguments that the statements were protected, and seeking to strike the entire complaint. Upon receiving my opposition, the defendant replied with, “Well . . . hee hee . . . you know Court, when I asked you to strike the entire complaint, what I really meant was that you should strike the individual allegations of protected speech.” The trial court refused to do so, and the defendant appealed, and made the same argument that individual allegations should be stricken, even though the notice of motion made no such request. The Court of Appeal held that it would be improper to do so. And it was a published opinion! I now had authority to support my all or nothing argument.  Read the rest of this entry »

The SLAPP is the Lawsuit

"Back to Basics" handwritten sign

Sometimes I get so far into the weeds of SLAPP law, that I fail to explain the fundamentals. At least once a week a get a call from someone saying they’ve read one or more of my articles, and want to retain me to bring a SLAPP action.

Changing the facts to maintain privacy, today’s caller was thrown out of a movie theater for doing his own Mystery Science Theater 3000. He thought the crowd would be amused by his ongoing commentary about what was occurring on the screen. They weren’t.

He concluded that was an infringement on his right of free speech, and wanted to “bring a SLAPP suit.”

Back to basics.

SLAPP stands for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation. A SLAPP is a legal action filed in order to chill someone’s exercise of public participation, whether that takes the form of speech in a public forum, or by way of litigation, to provide two examples.

So the SLAPP is the lawsuit. An anti-SLAPP motion is a RESPONSE to a lawsuit that is based on speech or conduct that is protected by the anti-SLAPP statute. Read the rest of this entry »

Use an anti-SLAPP Motion Instead of a Motion for Summary Judgment

Man looking through magnifying glass at contract
It is typically the case that as I review a complaint for the first time, I spot the allegations that are based on protected speech, and then consider whether the plaintiff will be able to present a prima facie case under the second prong of the anti-SLAPP analysis.

But lately a number of cases have presented a situation where I immediately recognize that the plaintiff is facing a nearly impossible burden to show a prima facie case. For example, I have had a number of cases with claims for Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress (NIED). In case you did not get the memo, NIED does not really exist as an independent claim; it is just a claim for negligence. But since a defendant has no general duty to avoid inflicting emotional distress on a plaintiff, a claim captioned as a claim for NIED is almost always dead on arrival. (I have provided the case authority at the end of this article.)

So instead of first seeing the protected speech, I spot the failure of the second prong of the anti-SLAPP analysis, and then focus on whether that defective claim was based on protected speech. If so, it presents the opportunity to use an anti-SLAPP motion as a motion for summary judgment.

Allow me to provide a recent example. While I tell the tale, see if you can spot the SLAPP.

The Indemnity Agreement

As always, changing the facts slightly to protect their privacy, my clients (we’ll call them “Clients”) entered into a service contract with Joe Dokes, Inc. The contract contained an indemnity provision, providing that Clients would be responsible for any costs, attorney fees, and damages incurred by Joe Dokes, Inc. as a result of any litigation arising from the contract.

Clients timely made all payments under the contract until they caught Joe Dokes, Inc. acting in a fraudulent manner, and stopped paying on that basis. Joe Dokes, Inc. sued Clients for the fairly nominal amount still due under the contract, and Clients cross-complained against Joe Dokes, Inc. and Joe Dokes individually for the fraud.

Having been sued individually, Joe Dokes came up with the brilliant idea to cross-complain back against Clients under the indemnity provision contained in the contract. The contract was between my clients and Joe Dokes, Inc. This fact was specifically alleged in the original complaint by Joe Dokes, Inc. Nonetheless, Joe Dokes alleged in his individual capacity that he was the sole shareholder and principal of Joe Dokes, Inc., and was therefore a party to the indemnity agreement. All of his causes of action were based on indemnity, pursuant to that agreement.

So what is an attorney to do?

Read the rest of this entry »

We Finally Get a Court to Address the “All-or-Nothing” Concept

All or Nothing Sign

We just today received an opinion from the Court of Appeal, affirming our victory on an anti-SLAPP motion. Nothing earth shattering there; that is a relatively common occurrence at Morris & Stone.

But what makes this opinion more exciting than most is that the Court adopted a concept we have been advancing for years, without much success. The problem has not been that past courts have necessarily disagreed with our position, it’s just that they do not need to rule on the specific point in order to find in our favor, so the point is not discussed.

A Special Motion to Strike is still a motion to strike; it’s just special.

With a standard motion to strike, the moving party is required to set forth in the notice of motion specifically what they are seeking to strike. If the movant seeks to strike an entire paragraph, that paragraph can be identified by number, but if they want to strike individual words or sentences, those must be quoted verbatim.

This just makes sense, under the concept of due process. If a defendant moves to strike portions of a complaint, the plaintiff can’t properly respond to the motion if those portions are not identified. Quite properly, therefore, a court won’t entertain a motion to strike that simply states, “the court should strike any improper allegations contained in the complaint.”

And yet, as obvious at that concept may appear, that is precisely what occurs in almost every special motion to strike I oppose. The notice of motion will state only that the defendant is seeking to strike the entire complaint, but in response to my opposition, defendant changes tactics and asks that any individual allegations that arise from protected conduct be stricken, without ever identifying those allegations.

The vast majority of the time, the request does not become an issue, because the court simply denies the motion. But in opposing the motion, in addition to my other arguments, I always argue that the court CANNOT decide to split the baby and strike individual allegations, because the defendant did not identify them in the notice of motion. It would be highly unfair, and a violation of due process, for the court to go through the complaint with a scalpel and cut out individual allegations, when I have been given no opportunity to respond.  Read the rest of this entry »

The First Amendment Protects Speech the Government Decides is False

Sign reading "Danger Slippery Slope"

The “slippery slope” argument is often dismissed with disdain, but seemingly always by the people willing to turn a blind eye to reality.

When arguing an appeal, I often use an extreme example of what could occur should the court fail to find in my client’s favor. A justice will sometimes seek to counter my example by stating that such an extreme result is unlikely, but that beautifully makes my argument. “Unlikely” is not the same as impossible, and if the best that can be argued is that the result is unlikely, that means it is possible, and the policy must be considered in that light.

This is especially true as regards the First Amendment. For every policy reason one might offer to justify a limitation on the freedom of speech, I can counter with an example of how that limitation will be abused. The facts of United States v. Alvarez, 567 U.S. 709, illustrate this point.

The case involved a man by the name of Xavier Alvarez (“respondent”). As set forth in the opinion of the court, Alvarez had a propensity to spin tall tales. “He lied when he said that he played hockey for the Detroit Red Wings and that he once married a starlet from Mexico. But when he lied in announcing he held the Congressional Medal of Honor, respondent ventured onto new ground; for that lie violates a federal criminal statute, the Stolen Valor Act of 2005. 18 U. S. C. §704.”

The facts and arrest.

In 2007, respondent attended his first public meeting as a board member of the Three Valley Water District Board. He introduced himself as follows: “I’m a retired marine of 25 years. I retired in the year 2001. Back in 1987, I was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. I got wounded many times by the same guy.” None of this was true. As the Court put it: “For all the record shows, respondent’s statements were but a pathetic attempt to gain respect that eluded him. The statements do not seem to have been made to secure employment or financial benefits or admission to privileges reserved for those who had earned the Medal.”

Respondent was indicted under the Stolen Valor Act for lying about the Congressional Medal of Honor at the meeting. The United States District Court for the Central District of California rejected his claim that the statute is invalid under the First Amendment. Respondent pleaded guilty to one count, reserving the right to appeal on his First Amendment claim.

In turn, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit found the Act invalid under the First Amendment and reversed the conviction. After certiorari was granted by the Supreme Court, in an unrelated case, the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, found the Act constitutional. So there was now a conflict in the Courts of Appeals on the question of the Act’s validity.

A little history.

Congress, over a century ago, established an award so the Nation could hold in its highest respect and esteem those who, in the course of carrying out the “supreme and noble duty of contributing to the defense of the rights and honor of the nation,” have acted with extraordinary honor. And it should be uncontested that this is a legitimate Government objective, indeed a most valued national aspiration and purpose. This does not end the inquiry, however. Fundamental constitutional principles require that laws enacted to honor the brave must be consistent with the precepts of the Constitution for which they fought.

The issue presented by this conflict was therefore relatively straightforward. In the interest of a legitimate government objective, can the First Amendment’s protections be curtailed?

The Government argued that the criminal prohibition is a proper means to further its purpose in creating and awarding the Medal. When content-based speech regulation is in question, however, exacting scrutiny is required. Statutes suppressing or restricting speech must be judged by the sometimes inconvenient principles of the First Amendment.

Here is how the Court resolved these competing interests. Read the rest of this entry »

Anti-SLAPP Attorney Fees and the “Spectrum of Success”

Abstract compass with needle pointing the word success with blur effect. Conceptual image suitable for a motivational poster or a business concept.

Today’s instructive tale involves an anti-SLAPP motion I brought on behalf of a client, and the motion for attorney fees that followed. It provides a good illustration of what I have named the “Spectrum of Success.”

First, an analogy.

Picture that you are involved in an auto accident. Thankfully no one was hurt, but both cars are totaled – your $23,000 Toyota Corolla and the other guy’s $2,400,000 Aston Martin Vulcan.

At the scene of the accident, you both exchanged insurance information. You were both very civil about the whole thing, and shook hands before departing. However, while shaking his hand, you placed your other hand on the other driver’s shoulder, not realizing it was covered with grease. You ruined his $2,000 suit.

Who was at fault is in dispute, and the other guy sues you for negligence, seeking: (1) $2.4 million to replace his car; and (2) $2,000 to replace his suit. Since your insurance only covers up to $30,000 for property damage, your wallet is going to take a serious hit if you are found liable.

You decide to pay extra for a top attorney in this field, and that decision pays off. The attorney immediately recognizes that an Aston Martin Vulcan is a track-only car, and is not street legal. Your attorney brings a motion to strike the allegation that seeks money for the damage to the car, on the basis that the plaintiff was committing an illegal act by operating the car on the street. But for that illegal act, the car could not have been damaged.

The judge agrees and grants the motion. The successful motion does not dispose of the action – the negligence action still remains as to the $2,000 suit – but your exposure to the $2.4 million dollars in damages to the car is gone.

By any measure, that is a great result. Wouldn’t you agree? Read the rest of this entry »

Stormy Daniels’ Action Against Trump Goes Down in Flames

Stormy Daniels Complaint on Fire
I went to update this article based on recent news, and had to chuckle at all that has happened to the parties involved in the interim.

The Non Disclosure Agreement between Stormy Daniels and Donald Trump is all back in the news because Trump has now been criminally charged for some still undefined crime, relating to the money paid to Daniels. But here is the legal history.

The tale began back in October 2018, when I first reported that adult film star Stormy Daniels was originally suing Donald Trump under a declaratory relief action, seeking to invalidate a “hush” agreement she has signed and been paid for. Her attorney, Michael Avenatti, then tried to get cute by filing a defamation action. The alleged defamation resulted from an incident that purportedly occurred in a parking lot, where Daniels says she was threatened to keep her mouth shut. Trump referred to the story in a Tweet as a “con job,” and Avenatti on behalf of Daniels claimed that amounted to defamation since Trump was accusing Daniels of lying. I predicted at the time that the action would be thrown out on an anti-SLAPP motion, and that proved to be true. The court concluded that Trump’s tweet was “rhetorical hyperbole” and was protected speech that could not be the basis of a defamation action. Daniels was hit with $293,000 in attorney fees.

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

Avenatti isn’t laughing. Read the rest of this entry »

Aaron Morris, Attorney
Aaron Morris
Morris & Stone, LLP

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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.

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