Anti-SLAPP motions provide defendants with a valuable tool to dispose of meritless cases that stifle protected speech . In Squires v. City of Eureka (October 17, 2014, A138768; A139849) ___Cal. App.4th___ [14 Cal. Daily Op. Serv. 12, 987], the Court of Appeal upheld the use of an anti-SLAPP motion by the City of Eureka ("City") to dismiss a case brought by a group of landlords, after finding that the case stemmed from the City's protected code enforcement activities.
What is an Anti-SLAPP motion?
"SLAPP" stands for "strategic lawsuit against public participation." SLAPP cases involve the use of litigation to silence or chill a defendant's protected speech. Anti-SLAPP motions to strike may be used by defendants early in litigation to end SLAPP cases, and avoid the costs of unnecessary discovery.
Courts evaluate the use of an anti-SLAPP motion by applying a two-step process. As the court in Squires explained, "First, the court decides whether the defendant has made a threshold showing that the challenged cause of action is one arising from protected activity." Code of Civil Procedure section 425.16 provides that a "protected activity" includes various actions involving speech, including conduct involving official governmental proceedings. "If the court finds that [the case involves a protected activity], it must then determine the second step, whether the plaintiff has demonstrated a probability of prevailing on the claim."
As an additional deterrent to meritless lawsuits, California's anti-SLAPP statute provides for attorney's fees for defendants who prevail in making an anti-SLAPP motion to strike. On the other hand, if a court finds that an anti-SLAPP motion is frivolous or intended to cause "undue delay," the court may award attorney's fees to the prevailing plaintiff.
How did the court apply this test in Squires?
First, it's important to understand the facts of the case. Floyd and Betty Squires (the "Plaintiffs") owned several rental properties with persistent code violations. Following extended code enforcement efforts, the City attempted to have a receiver appointed, citing the code violations. Just prior to the City's filing of the receivership petition, Plaintiffs filed the lawsuit against the City and some of its employees (the "Defendants") alleging Equal Protection violations under Section 1983 and various other causes of action.
Turning to the anti-SLAPP test, both parties agreed that the speech involved a "protected activity," since it involved code enforcement actions taken by the Defendants. As such, the Court of Appeal (the "Court") focused on the second prong of the anti-SLAPP test – whether the Plaintiff had demonstrated a probability of prevailing on its claims.
Although the Court noted that the second prong only requires the Plaintiffs to show that the cases has "minimal merit" the Court noted that the showing requires the Plaintiff to present "competent and admissible evidence." To satisfy this burden, the Plaintiffs cited to four declarations. However, the Court found the evidence insufficient. For example, Plaintiffs cited as evidence of disparate treatment testimony by the City's representatives regarding Plaintiffs' noncompliance with city code. The Court noted that a disparate treatment claim requires a showing that the Plaintiffs were treated differently than other classes of persons. The testimony cited by the Plaintiffs did not support such a claim.
What about the attorney's fees?
Victorious at the trial court, Defendants received over $50,000 in attorney's fees. Following their successful defense on appeal, Defendants were again awarded attorney's fees pursuant to the anti-SLAPP statute.
What does this mean to you?
This case illustrates the power of anti-SLAPP motions to dismiss meritless lawsuits early in the litigation process. The case also establishes that anti-SLAPP motions can be used in state court to defeat a plaintiff's federal claims. However, federal courts generally refuse to apply anti-SLAPP statutes to federal claims. Therefore, litigants involved in cases that may give rise to anti-SLAPP motions should carefully weigh the benefits of litigating in federal versus state court.
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