Trial

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

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

California SLAPP Law Podcast

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

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

Then we move onto two recent anti-SLAPP rulings.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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Peer Review Process for Doctors is a Protected Activity Under SLAPP Statute

Anti-SLAPP Motion against doctor
The California Court of Appeal just ruled that I know what I’m talking about when it comes to SLAPP law, and that I have saved many doctors from filing actions that would have been met with successful anti-SLAPP motions and thereby cost them many thousands of dollars, paying the other side’s attorney fees.

OK, the Court didn’t actually mention me by name, but that’s the way I read it. You see, most doctors (depending on their practice) want and need medical privileges at one or more hospitals. Without those privileges, their practices are really crippled. So when a hospital decides to revoke those privileges, it is a big deal for the doctor.

Following the revocation, the doctors want to do something, anything, to pressure the hospital’s board to reinstate the privileges. That often brings them to my door, wanting to sue for defamation, claiming that someone said something that cost them their privileges, and that they suffered damages as a result.

I have always refused such cases, because I am of the opinion that under normal circumstances, the entire medical peer review process qualifies as an official proceeding. Therefore, it falls under both the anti-SLAPP statute and the absolute privileges of Civil Code section 47. No matter how you try to plead the action, it will come back to the fact that the decision to fire the doctor was a protected activity.

Leading us to the case of radiologist John Nesson versus Northern Inyo County Local Hospital District. Read the rest of this entry »

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Is Rush Limbaugh Facing a Claim for Defamation?

Rush Limbaugh Liable for Slander

I’m getting calls from media outlets about some comments made by Rush Limbaugh, and whether they constitute defamation. I’m always happy to talk to you reporters and provide comments, but thought I’d put this post up to provide some background for your articles.

Apparently Rush Limbaugh weighed in on the controversy over religious organizations being forced to pay for birth control for their employees. Following an appearance by Sandra Fluke, a Georgetown University student, at an informal House Democratic hearing last month. Ms. Fluke testified in favor of Mr. Obama’s mandate, which Georgetown and other Catholic institutions have roundly condemned as an infringement on their religious rights.

At the hearing, Ms. Fluke said fellow students at her Jesuit university pay as much as $1,000 a year for contraceptives that are not covered by student health plans.

On Wednesday, during his radio show, Limbaugh allegedly said:

“What does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute . . . she wants to be paid to have sex … She’s having so much sex she can’t afford contraception.”

Accusing a woman of being unchaste is the classic, old-school form of slander. Here is the definition of slander under California’s Civil Code § 46:

Slander is a false and unprivileged publication, orally uttered, and also communications by radio or any mechanical or other means which:

1. Charges any person with crime, or with having been indicted, convicted, or punished for crime;

2. Imputes in him the present existence of an infectious, contagious, or loathsome disease;

3. Tends directly to injure him in respect to his office, profession, trade or business, either by imputing to him general disqualification in those respects which the office or other occupation peculiarly requires, or by imputing something with reference to his office, profession, trade, or business that has a natural tendency to lessen its profits;

4. Imputes to him impotence or a want of chastity; or

5. Which, by natural consequence, causes actual damage.

I’ll bet you never knew it was slander to accuse a man of being impotent, but I digress. There it is in black and white – it is slander to impute to a woman a “want of chastity”. (For those of you who carefully read the section and see that it said “imputes to HIM . . . a want of chastity”, you get bonus points. However, there is a catchall statute that provides statements of gender in statutes don’t exclude the other gender, so you can’t accuse men or women of being loose.)

So is Rush Limbaugh toast?

Not at all, because defamation law makes clear that context is everything. Back in 2009 I wrote about the case of radio commentator Tom Martino who stated on his consumer show that the sellers of a boat were “lying”. The plaintiffs/sellers took umbrage with that remark, and sued Martino for defamation. Defendants responded with an anti-SLAPP motion, claiming the statement was merely an opinion and therefore could not constitute defamation. The trial court agreed with defendants and ruled that as a matter of law the comments did not constitute defamation. Under the anti-SLAPP statute, plaintiffs were ordered to pay all of defendants’ attorney fees.

A true opinion cannot constitute defamation unless it is offered as an assertion of fact. While it was true that the radio program host accused the plaintiffs of “lying” to their customer, that could not seriously be taken as an assertion of fact given the context of the show. As the court observed, “The Tom Martino Show is a radio talk show program that contains many of the elements that would reduce the audiences’ expectation of leaning an objective fact: drama, hyperbolic language, an opinionated and arrogant host and heated controversy. In the context of the show, Martino was simply listening to the complaint of a caller, and possessed no independent knowledge of the facts beyond what he was being told. It could not be taken, in that context, that he intended his “lying” comment to be taken as a verifiable fact.

So it is with Rush Limbaugh. He knows nothing about this woman who believes others should pay for her birth control, and he was engaging in a little hyperbole about what that makes her. He was creating a false syllogism to make a point, claiming that based on her testimony she wants to have sex, she can’t have sex without birth control, she wants someone else to pay for her birth control, so she is being paid to have sex.

As the old saying goes, you can sue for anything, but a defamation action by Ms. Fluke would not survive the first motion (especially if I was the attorney defending free speech).

And speaking of free speech, the fight for free speech should not depend on the politics of the speaker. Here is a colorful article from someone who hates Limbaugh, but quite properly would fight for his right of free speech.

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Even Nuns Defame; Credibility Key to Any Trial

"Notre Dame des Anges" an 1889 painting by William-Adolphe Bouguereau. (Provided photo) / AL
The report of this defamation caught my eye because of the parties involved. There is a standard joke among attorneys, that if you find yourself suing widows, orphans or nuns, your practice has probably taken a bad turn. In this case, nuns were being sued for defamation.

It started when the nuns decided to sell an old painting they had laying around. The painting was in really bad shape, not even worth hanging, but it turned out to be by a well regarded artist, William-Adolphe Bouguereau. So the nuns had it appraised by an art dealer named Mark LaSalle. Based on his appraisal, the nuns agreed to sell the painting to Mark Zaplin for $450,000. Zaplin had the painting restored to its former glory, a fact that I think is crucial to this case, and turned around and sold it for $2.15 million, netting a tidy little profit.

The nuns sued LaSalle and Zaplin under a number of theories, claiming that Zaplin had been a straw buyer, and that LaSalle was working in concert with Zaplin and had conned the Daughters of Mary by intentionally under-appraising the painting in order to buy it at a bargain price. The two Marks counter-sued for defamation, because the nuns had made these same claims to the media. (In case you’re new here, you can never sue for defamation for things said in conjunction with a lawsuit, since those statements are privileged, but you can sue if the same statements are made to the media.)

Here is the part I find interesting and the main reason for this article. The nuns had a witness. An art dealer by the name of Paul Dumont claimed to know both LaSalle and Zaplin, and testified that LaSalle had told him that they could “make a handsome profit by giving the sisters a low appraisal value of between $350,000 and $450,000 and presenting a buyer who would pay the amount of our deliberate and intentionally inaccurate appraisal.” He claimed that LaSalle had asked him to find a “money man” who would act as a straw buyer.

Wow. Pretty strong stuff. So the nuns must have won, right? Actually, they went down in flames (can I say that about nuns?). A New York jury found against them on all of their claims, and instead awarded LaSalle $250,000 for defamation against Dumont and a church Bishop, and awarded Zaplin $75,000 against Dumont for defamation. LaSalle will also recover punitive damages.

But how can that happen with a witness who is specifically corroborating the story of the fraudulent appraisal and straw buyer? And therein lies the moral of this story. Read the rest of this entry »

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An Explanation of the Civil Litigation Process

Every profession has it’s own unique procedures and lexicon. If I went to a plumbers’ convention, I’m sure I wouldn’t know half of what they were talking about.

I have to remind myself of this periodically, because during a conversation with a prospective client I’ll use basic legal terms like “summons”, “complaint” and “answer”, assuming the person knows what I am talking about, only to realize as the conversation progresses that they are not familiar with even those terms.  I communicate like crazy with my clients,  following the method tell them what you are going to say, tell them, and then tell them what you said.  Indeed, I can’t imagine a more communicative lawyer.  Yet even well into a case, I occasionally find that a client has a fundamental misunderstanding of the process.

The following video is by a San Francisco attorney. He provides a very basic description of the litigation process from beginning to end.  The video is simple but very well done, and is a great resource if you are looking for a broad overview of the litigation process.

 

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Aaron Morris, Attorney
Aaron Morris
Morris & Stone, LLP

Orchard Technology Park
11 Orchard Road, Suite 106
Lake Forest, CA 92630

(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.