Wrongful Termination

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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Can band members sue for wrongful termination?

Eddie Money is looking for two tickets to paradise in the form of an anti-SLAPP motion to get him out of what certainly appears to be a ridiculous suit.

His drummer, Glenn Symmonds, sued Eddie Money for wrongful termination when Money decided to use his son’s band for appearances. Symmonds claimed this “termination” was based on his age and because he has cancer. When those claims didn’t seem to be gaining much traction, Symmonds added his girlfriend to the mix, claiming that he suffered emotional distress from witnessing Money sexually harassing her, citing an incident where he held the mic between his legs like a penis.

Money has responded to the complaint with an anti-SLAPP motion, asserting that the manner in which he presents his music, and hence the make-up of his band, is a protected form of expression.

“The fact that Eddie did not invite Plaintiff to rejoin the band had nothing whatsoever to do with his age,” states the brief. “Nor did it have anything to do with any illness or disability that he suffered. It was based entirely on how inappropriately Plaintiff reacted upon hearing that Eddie wanted to tour with his adult children during the summer.”

I can’t opine on the likely outcome of the motion, because I don’t have knowledge of the evidence that both sides can bring to bear. But I would predict that the motion will satisfy the first prong of the anti-SLAPP analysis, since Money’s performance is a form of expression.

And I can opine that Symmonds needs to get a life. Apparently not only was Money not bothered by Symmonds’ cancer, he held fundraising concerts for him. No good deed goes unpunished.

[UPDATE — February 5, 2019] 

The case took a long and winding road, but ultimately the Court of Appeal concluded that while “we do not suggest that employment decisions as a general matter are acts in furtherance of the right to petition or free speech for anti-SLAPP purposes, here, as we have explained, Mahoney’s [Money’s legal name] decision to terminate Symmonds . . . did implicate Mahoney’s free speech rights.” On that basis, the court overruled an earlier denial of the anti-SLAPP motion and dismissed Symmonds’ action against Money.

[UPDATE — September 13, 2019]

Eddie Money died from complications of esophageal cancer at age 70. If there’s a rock and roll heaven, then I’m sure they have a hell of a band.

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An Emotional Distress Claim Should Not Be Undertaken Lightly

The case of Mallard v. Progressive Choice Ins. Co. beautifully illustrates a point I discuss with all clients who want to make an emotional distress claim, while at the same time illustrating an important SLAPP rule of law.

Sometimes I will get a call from a potential client within minutes after they were fired. They want to sue for wrongful termination and they want to sue NOW!

But 15 minutes after an employee has been fired, what are the damages? When I ask the caller that question, they answer, “I was fired!” Yes, but what are your damages? “I was fired!”

Rather than to go on all day in this fashion, I explain. Damages are something you can put a dollar sign in front of. Being fired is not a damage, although obviously it can CAUSE damages. But 15 minutes after a termination, an ethical attorney should explain that there are no real damages at that point.

If the employee was making, say, $25 an hour, and they were fired two hours before their shift ended, then the damages at that moment they are calling me are $50, at least in terms of lost wages. But let’s carry it out a little. Let’s assume for our hypothetical that the employee had seen the writing on the wall and had already sent out some feelers for a new job before the axe fell. She makes a few calls, and a week later she starts a new job with the same title that pays $30 per hour with better benefits. What are her damages then?

Well, she went a week without being paid, so she lost $1,000 in wages. Her old employer should at least cut her a check for $1,000, right? But wait a second. Because of the termination, she will made $10,000 more for the year than if she hadn’t been fired. Fair’s fair. If you thought her employer should pay her for what she lost as a result of the termination, then it is only fair that she should pay to the employer the money she gained as a result of the termination, right?

I’m speaking tongue in cheek of course, but I want you to think in terms of the real damage to our terminated employee. Last week I discussed all the damages that flow from a wrongful termination, and if you look at that list, assuming our employee did not suffer any setback to her career track, then there are no real damages.

“But what about emotional distress damages?”, the caller asks. That’s a valid question. If your employer wrongfully terminated you, you might have suffered some emotional distress damages. Again, an ethical attorney then needs to explain what you open yourself up to when you claim emotional distress.

Which leads us to today’s case review.

Progressive Insurance issued an automobile insurance policy to Winly Mallard. She was involved in an auto accident, and her medical expenses exceeded the policy limits, so she proceeded under her insurance policy’s uninsured motorist claim because the driver of the other car involved in the accident did not have liability insurance.

A quick aside here. All the commercials you see with the helpful insurance agents are bull. Yes, you will be fine if you are in an accident that involves only property damages and perhaps some minor medical expenses, but if you ask for anything challenging, the insurance company will fight your coverage.

That was what happened to Winly Mallard. An attorney by the name of Rivers J. Morrell III was retained by Progressive with regard to Mallard’s claim. Morrell propounded form interrogatories to Mallard on Progressive’s behalf. In addition to listing her injuries to her neck and back, Mallard also stated that she had difficulty sleeping, and suffered “[s]hock” and “[n]ervous anxiety.” In addition, she stated she was pursuing a claim for loss of earning capacity.

There it is. Just like a wrongfully terminated employee who wants to assert emotional distress, Mallard had put at issue her mental health. Is she having trouble sleeping because of the accident and/or injuries, or is there something else that could be troubling her? Morrell wanted to know, so her mental health records were subpoenaed from health care providers identified in her verified responses.

Understandably, Mallard felt very invaded. She filed a complaint alleging claims for invasion of privacy and abuse of process against Morrell and Progressive, based on the act of subpoenaing third parties to obtain Mallard’s mental health records. Mallard served only Morrell with the complaint.

Morrell filed an anti-SLAPP motion to strike the complaint, which was opposed by Mallard. The trial court granted the anti-SLAPP motion and ordered the complaint dismissed with prejudice as to both defendants. Mallard appealed.

The trial court granted Morrell’s motion for attorney fees and costs, awarding him $13,756.64 in attorney fees and costs under section 425.16, subdivision (c). Mallard appealed, but the Court of Appeal agreed that the action against the attorney was a SLAPP, and upheld the judgment.

Morals of this story: A determination of an insured’s uninsured motorist coverage is always by way of an arbitration. Apparently Mallard’s attorney thought that an arbitration would not fall under the right of redress aspect of the anti-SLAPP statute, but he was wrong. As I discussed here, the standard is very broad – even a trial in Zimbabwe is considered an official proceeding.

Second, clients must be made aware that making an emotional distress claim leaves them open to very intrusive questions and discovery. That does not by any means mean that it is never appropriate to assert such a claim, but it should only be done after much consideration.

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Aaron Morris, Attorney
Aaron Morris
Morris & Stone, LLP

Orchard Technology Park
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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.