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Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Anti-SLAPP gone wild: Massachusetts tightens the reins



The anti-SLAPP cases kept coming from the Massachusetts appeals courts in May.  I posted previously on anti-SLAPP in the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in February.  This posting describes three recent holdings, the middle of which substantially revised—and tightened—the anti-SLAPP qualification analysis.  The next two paragraphs recap some background on anti-SLAPP; skip right down to the cases if you like.  The Massachusetts anti-SLAPP statute is Mass. Gen. L. ch. 231, § 59H.

For a quick recap, “anti-SLAPP” refers to state statutes designed to forestall tort claims in “strategic lawsuits against public participation” (SLAPPs).  The prototypical SLAPP might be a land developer’s suit against environmental protestors for interference with the developer’s prospective economic relations.  The protestors are motivated by First Amendment right to speak and petition and are not acting wrongfully.  So, the logic goes, they should not be tied up in pricey and complex litigation having to assert the First Amendment as an affirmative defense.  Rather, they are entitled to a speedy dismissal.  In various forms and fashion across the states, anti-SLAPP statutes allow expedited process before the trial courts to dispense summarily with cases that ultimately would or should come out in defendants’ favor.

Furthermore for quick recap, I despise anti-SLAPP statutes.  They are yet another crutch for defense lawyers—complementing a broad array of defense privileges in common law and constitutional law—to cloak the perpetrators of defamation, privacy invasion, interference, and other torts in the false light (if you will) of constitutional holy writ.  Through unduly expedited process, anti-SLAPP deprives plaintiffs out of the gate of a fair chance to discover the damning evidence of defendants’ wrongful conduct—evidence often required by the aforementioned broad array of defenses, thus compounding the already ratcheted-up hurdles a plaintiff with meritorious cause must clear.

At ABA meetings, I have heard the defense lawyers of transnational mass media conglomerates speak of anti-SLAPP bills in the same tender timbre one employs to share photos of a newborn.  They are especially fond of anti-SLAPP laws that award attorneys’ fees to the prevailing defendant; imagine that Goliath bill arriving in David’s mailbox.  Such cooing should be evidence enough that the playing field has been unleveled.  And I was a defense lawyer, so I know of whom I speak.

That said, I would be foolish to assert that anti-SLAPP motions don’t often reach just results.  An unlevel playing field does not mean that the winning team is not the better.  I contend instead that anti-SLAPP gives a trial judge too much power to ballpark “right” and “wrong” in the absence of the fair evidentiary confrontation that our adversarial system requires.  These cases illustrate how the Massachusetts appellate courts are struggling to implement the state anti-SLAPP law fairly.

(1) The Case of the Ex-Spouse Who Won’t Let It Go

After what must have been an ugly divorce in the 1990s, Ms. St. Germain was left with a permanent protective order of no contact against her former husband, Mr. O’Gara.  In 2014, after receiving contact via post, St. Germain complained to police that O’Gara had violated the protective order.  Police arrested, charged, and then dismissed charges against O’Gara, who in turn sued St. Germain on various civil theories—breach of contract, abuse of process, malicious prosecution, tortious interference, and intentional infliction of emotional distress—for the police report that had precipitated his arrest.

Holding O’Gara’s civil suit “based entirely on [St. Germain’s] petitioning activity,” the court dismissed the civil suit upon St. Germain’s anti-SLAPP special motion, reversing the superior court.  The court reiterated that petitioning activity under the Massachusetts statute is to be construed broadly, “‘similar in purpose to the protections afforded public officials by the doctrine of governmental immunity’” (quoting precedent).  “Furthermore, § 59H covers petitioning activity regardless of whether it concerns a public or purely private matter.”

The statute first burdened defendant St. Germain, as special movant, with proving by preponderance that O’Gara’s lawsuit was based solely on her police report as petitioning activity, without other substantial basis.  Second, under the burden-shifting procedure of the statute, O’Gara would be compelled to prove by preponderance that St. Germain’s petition “‘(1) … was devoid of any reasonable factual support or any arguable basis in law and (2) … caused actual injury.’”

The trial judge had erred by skipping the first step of the inquiry and justifying discovery upon a “credible claim of injury caused by [St. Germain].”  Rather, first, St. Germain was correct in asserting that O’Gara’s suit concerned her police report solely as petitioning.  O’Gara had asserted that St. Germain was motivated by hostility, besides petitioning.  But the court concluded that whether or not she bore such motive was immaterial to the purely petitioning nature of the report.  Second, St. Germain was reasonable in believing her police report legally founded, despite the later dismissal of charges.  I.e., the police report was not a sham.

The case is O’Gara v. St. Germain, No. 15-P-1711 (Mass. App. Ct. May 11, 2017) (Justia).


Four incidents of alleged abuse or neglect of patients in a unit of the Steward Carney Hospital in Boston resulted in a mass dismissal of unit staff, including nurses.  Discussing the employment shake-up publicly in email to hospital staff and in statements to The Boston Globe, with a state investigation still underway, hospital administrators were vague on particulars.  The state later blamed three incidents on only one mental health counselor, and the fourth incident on staff, the latter conclusion the subject of ongoing legal contest.  Plaintiff nurses sued the hospital for defamation, and the hospital responded with an anti-SLAPP special motion. 

The Supreme Judicial Court, per Justice Barbara Lenk on May 23, reached a mixed result and remanded, furthermore finding occasion to tighten the requirements for an anti-SLAPP motion to succeed. 

Again illustrating the broad construction of petitioning activity, on the first step of the anti-SLAPP test, the hospital successfully asserted that the nurses’ lawsuit concerned statements to the press solely as protected petitioning, because the statements were “‘made to influence, inform, or at the very least, reach governmental bodies—either directly or indirectly’” (quoting precedent).  “The key requirement of this definition of petitioning is the establishment of a plausible nexus between the statement and the governmental proceeding.”  The Court held that statements to the Globe passed muster as indirectly aimed at state investigators  However, email to hospital staff, intended only for internal circulation, did not pass the test.

Here the Court steered off the road.  Initially the Court was flummoxed: what to do with a split outcome between allegedly defamatory statements?  Recall that the defendant must show that plaintiff’s suit concerned “solely” defendant’s petitioning activity.  What happens when some statements are petitioning and some are not?  Perhaps the anti-SLAPP motion must fail, because the defendants’ activity was not, then, purely petitioning.  Or perhaps the petitioning activity alone, here the Globe statements, advance to the second step of the test, burden shifting for the plaintiff to prove sham.  If plaintiff cannot prove sham petitioning, defamation might be dismissed in part.  The design of the complaint cannot be dispositive, for plaintiffs could evade anti-SLAPP by parsing counts.

That issue, however, proved to be only the crest of a hill concealing the drop off of a cliff.  For then the Court plunged into angst over the very enterprise of the anti-SLAPP analysis.  If a defendant cannot prove that the lawsuit is about solely petitioning activity, can the lawsuit not be a SLAPP?  Inversely, if a defendant proves that the lawsuit is about solely petitioning activity, and the petitioning was not a sham, does it follow necessarily that the lawsuit should be dismissed as a SLAPP?

Suppose, the Court proffered (quoting Illinois precedent), that defendant “‘spread malicious lies about an individual while in the course of genuinely petitioning the government for a favorable result.’”  The defendant passes muster under step one (if the statements are not parsed).  And the plaintiff cannot show sham under step two.  Case dismissed.  Yet “[i]f a plaintiff's complaint genuinely seeks redress for damages from defamation or other intentional torts and, thus, does not constitute a SLAPP, it is irrelevant whether the defendant[’s] actions were genuinely aimed at procuring favorable government action, result, or outcome.”

Thus the Court exposed a basic constitutional dilemma in anti-SLAPP: The plaintiff has a right to petition, too; plaintiff’s lawsuit is a constitutionally protected petition to the judiciary.  I would add, ignorance of this fact is why anti-SLAPP statutes, if not properly reined in by the courts, unfairly overcorrect in defendants’ favor.  One can argue that this operation of anti-SLAPP is a prophylactic protection for the petitioning rights of the defendant, thereby demanding that we tolerate dismissal of some meritorious causes of action—like the problematic “actual malice” rule of public-figure defamation.  But that argument fails to explain why the defendant’s petition right is superior to the plaintiff’s.

To solve this problem and mitigate its constitutional dilemma, the Supreme Judicial Court added a second way for the plaintiff to prove its way out of anti-SLAPP dismissal in step two of the test.  Recall that plaintiff bore the burden of prove sham petitioning by the defendant (and actual injury).  Well now the plaintiff may prove sham petitioning or plaintiff’s “suit was not ‘brought primarily to chill’ the [defendant]’s legitimate exercise of its right to petition.”  Thus, recalling the “malicious lies” example above, suppose furthermore that the plaintiff cared not one way or the other about the matter of defendant’s petition to the government.  Plaintiff rather was concerned with the malicious lies, however the matter was decided.  “A necessary but not sufficient factor in this analysis will be whether the [plaintiff]’s claim at issue is ‘colorable or … worthy of being presented to and considered by the court,’ … i.e., whether it ‘offers some reasonable possibility’ of a decision in the party’s favor.” 

On remand, then, the nurses would be able to avoid anti-SLAPP dismissal on the Globe statements, as well as the email, by showing the Globe statements a sham petition—unlikely—or by showing “that their defamation claim, viewed as a whole, is nonetheless not a ‘SLAPP’ suit.”  If they cannot meet their burden either way, then the hospital will be entitled to dismissal as to the Globe statements, the case over the email persisting.

The change is a dramatic one.  So modifying the plaintiff’s burden on step two of the test forces the trial court to confront head on the undisguised, central question of the anti-SLAPP inquiry.  Notwithstanding precedents that eschew focus on a plaintiff’s motives, the analysis inevitably steers the court back to ask whether the plaintiff is aggrieved by the hurtfulness of what the defendant did, or by the defendant’s aim to influence government.  For my money, one might as well ask that question at the start and be done with it.

The case is Blanchard v. Steward Carney Hospital, No. SJC-12141 (Mass. May 23, 2017) (Justia).


Justice Lenk issued a second opinion on anti-SLAPP for the Supreme Judicial Court the same day, May 23.  The case better fits the prototype anti-SLAPP mold in being a dispute over property development.  The Court remanded for application of its new Blanchard standard (case (2), immediately above).

In 2011, the plaintiff purchased a five-story brick building, 477 Harrison Avenue, Boston, to redevelop it for residential use.  Defendant JACE Boston owned neighboring 1234 Washington Street, which shared a wall with the Harrison property.  Defendant intended at some point to redevelop its property, too, and a competition ensued.  The parties disputed redevelopment plans in years of administrative process and litigation.  Finally in 2014, plaintiff sued defendant in superior court for abuse of process and for violation of Mass. Gen. L. ch. 93A, § 11, a broad state prohibition on unfair competition.

Upon defendant’s anti-SLAPP motion, the trial court determined that the defendant could not meet its step-one burden to show that the lawsuit was about solely petitioning activity, without other substantial basis.  The Court rather found that the abuse of process claim passed muster under step one, concerning solely defendant’s petitioning.  On step two, the plaintiff could not show that defendant’s petitioning, with respect to the abuse of process claim, was entirely a sham, that is devoid of factual and legal basis.  Nevertheless, under the newly announced Blanchard standard, the plaintiff on remand must be afforded the opportunity to resist dismissal by proving that its lawsuit is not a SLAPP—that is, “the motion judge may conclude with fair assurance,” “‘that [plaintiff’s] primary motivating goal in bringing its claim, viewed in its entirety, was “not to interfere with and burden defendants” … petition rights, but to seek damages for the personal harm to [the plaintiff] from [the] defendant[’s] alleged … [legally transgressive] acts.’”

Faced with “the novel issue as to whether all or only some of a [defendant’s] petitioning activities must be shown to be illegitimate in order to defeat a special motion to dismiss,” the Court decided that the plaintiff must “show that the entirety of its abuse of process claim is not a ‘SLAPP’ suit” to resist dismissal in full.  Otherwise, dismissal (and fees) are granted only for the “portion of the abuse of process claim arising out of the defendant[’s] protected petitioning activities.” 

The case is 477 Harrison Avenue v. JACE Boston, LLC, No. SJC-12150 (Mass. May 23, 2017) (Justia).

[UPDATE, Nov. 11, 2019: The SJC today issued another installment in 477 Harrison saga.  Remanding, the Court determined that abutters' counterclaims were retaliatory, not substantive, so should not be sustained against the developer.  I'll say again, anti-SLAPP was not designed to protect developers in land feuds, much less to generate multiple interlocutory dispositions, and this case speaks directly to the pathology of anti-SLAPP.]

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Anti-SLAPP slaps justice, but Richard Simmons survives dismissal in privacy suit over tracking device

Sensational Simmons in 2011
(Angela George CC BY-SA 3.0)

In telephone consultation with an attorney-colleague just the other day, I had occasion to climb onto my soapbox and preach my anti-anti-SLAPP gospel.  I'm not sure when he hung up, but I kept preaching, because it's about the message, not the audience.

And then as if to say to me, "you go, girl," Richard Simmons popped up in my newsfeed.  More on that in a minute.

'Anti-SLAPP'

Anti-SLAPP is a mostly statutory court procedure meant to diffuse "strategic lawsuits against public participation," that is, essentially, to dispose quickly of lawsuits that are meant principally to harass a defendant who is participating in public life in a way protected by the First Amendment, namely, speaking or petitioning.

The prototype case is a land developer who sues environmental protestors for a tort such as interference with contract.  An anti-SLAPP statute allows the protestor-defendant to obtain a quick dismissal, because the plaintiff knows the protestor is not a business competitor, and the plaintiff's true aim is harassment via tort litigation.  Anti-SLAPP may be useful if, say, and I'm just spitballing here, you're a sexual assault complainant suing a politician with a habit of counterclaiming for defamation.  But the far more common use of anti-SLAPP motions is when a mass-media defendant is sued for, well, anything.

The communications bar loves anti-SLAPP.  And what's not to love?  What anti-SLAPP statutes demand varies widely across the states.  A defendant's anti-SLAPP motion might require only that the plaintiff re-submit the complaint under oath, or more aggressive statutes demand that the court hold a prompt hearing and dismiss the complaint if the plaintiff cannot show probability of success on the merits, a stringent pretrial standard reserved usually for preliminary injunctions.  Whatever the statute requires, the universal takeaway is that the blocking motion is good for the defense, providing another way to slow down litigation and require more money, time, and exertion by the plaintiff—who, let's not forget, usually is a victim of injury, even if the injury has not yet been adjudicated to be the fault of the defendant.

My problems with anti-SLAPP are legion, not the least of which is that the communications defense bar hardly needs a new defense at its disposal.  We already have the most overprotective-of-free-speech tort system in the world.   Without diving deep today, it will suffice to say that my opposition to anti-SLAPP fits neatly into my broader position that the famous civil rights-era innovation in First Amendment law embodied in New York Times v. Sullivan (U.S. 1964) should rather be described as an infamous and pivotal turn down a wrong and dangerous road, which is why courts around the world have widely rejected the case's central holding.  My position makes me about the most despised person at any communications defense bar conference, so I mostly skip the social events, after I've redeemed my free drink tickets.

Along Came Richard Simmons

When I talk about the abusive deployment of anti-SLAPP, I'm usually talking about the plaintiff's inability to prove Sullivan "actual malice," which, as a subjective standard, requires evidence of the defendant's state of mind.  In an especially wicked cruelty, a typical anti-SLAPP motion requires the plaintiff to show likelihood of success in proving defendant's actual-malicious state of mind before the plaintiff is allowed to use litigation discovery to collect evidence—all of which remains in the defendant's possession.

Bastion of the First Amendment
(2015 image by Mike Mozart CC BY 2.0)
So the rules of the game in First Amendment defamation are first rigged against the plaintiff, and then, when the plaintiff dares to complain anyway, we punish the audacity.  Rubbing salt into the wound, anti-SLAPP laws may also then require the plaintiff to pay the corporate media defendant's legal fees, a bankrupting prospect for the everyday-Joe plaintiff who might have been victimized by the careless reporting of a profits-churning transnational news company.

What I don't usually talk about is the kind of thing that apparently happened lately to Richard Simmons.  The once-and-future fitness guru—don't miss Dan Taberski's podcast Missing Richard Simmons (e1), which, however "morally suspect," might be my favorite podcast ever—alleged in a California invasion-of-privacy lawsuit that celebrity gossip rag In Touch Weekly hired someone to put a tracking device on Simmons's car.  As media, do, and maybe now you to start to see the problem, In Touch Weekly asked for dismissal under California's powerful anti-SLAPP statute, putting to the test Simmons's audacious challenge to the shining gold standard of American journalism.

Fortunately in this case, a trial judge, and this week a California court of appeal, held that news-gathering through trespass, or intrusion, is not what anti-SLAPP is made to protect.  Correspondingly, there is no First Amendment defense to the tort of invasion of privacy by intrusion.  So Simmons's case may resist anti-SLAPP dismissal.

Also fortunately, Richard Simmons has the financial resources and determination to fight a strong invasion-of-privacy case all the way through an appeal before even beginning pretrial discovery.  This isn't his first rodeo.  Richard Simmons is a survivor.

Someone needs to give Richard Simmons a law degree, and one day I won't feel so alone at the comm bar cocktail party.

The case is Simmons v. Bauer Media Group USA, LLC, No. B296220 (Cal. Ct. App. 2d App. Dist. 4 Div. May 21, 2020).  Parent-company Bauer Media Group, by the way, owned the gossip magazines that lost to Rebel Wilson in her landmark Australian defamation case.

Now move those buns.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Trump supporter vs. MSNBC's Joy Reid heats up for round 2, following reversal on free speech issues

It looks like the two-year-old defamation case by Trump supporter Roslyn La Liberte against MSNBC personality Joy Reid is about to heat up.

Racial Slurs and Other Not-So-Pleasantries

Eponymous host of MSNBC's ReidOut and "one of the few Black women to anchor a major American evening news program," Joy Reid has stirred up her share of schismatic controversy (e.g., "series of homophobic blog posts" (Glenn Greenwald), "casual Islamophobia" (Erik Wemple (pay wall))).  In June and July, on Twitter and Instagram, Reid called out MAGA-hat-bearing Roslyn La Liberte at a Simi Valley, California, City Council meeting (La Liberte at 4:17:45 to 4:19:57) for, as alleged in La Liberte's complaint, "yelling racial slurs at a minor," including that he would "'be the first deported ... dirty Mexican!,'" and "making ... racist statements and ... being racist."

A well circulated image of La Liberte and the 14-year-old boy at the council meeting, showing La Liberte mocking being choked but not actually talking to the boy, lent credence to Reid's characterization and its viral duplication.  Trolling responses came fast and furious in the Twittersphere and via email to La Liberte, the latter along the lines, "'You are a dirty white woman b***h,'" and "'I’m glad everyone in the entire world knows what a racist piece of s**t you are f**k you a*****e'" (asterisks in complaint).

However, La Liberte denied yelling racial slurs, and her story is backed up by the youth himself.  He described their exchange as "civil."  At least once during the meeting, a racial slur was directed at the boy, his mother said, but it wasn't uttered by La Liberte.  Cited in the complaint, Fox 11 L.A. untangled the story (June 29, 2018).

 

'Racist,' as a Matter of Fact

La Liberte sued Reid in the Eastern District of New York on a single count of defamation.  Alleging defamation per se, La Liberte in the complaint asserted, "Accusations of racist conduct are libelous on their face without resort to additional facts, and, as proven by this case, subject the accused to ridicule, hate, and embarrassment."

That point alone, on the merits, is interesting.  When I made a similar claim many years ago, colleagues and observers told me that an accusation of racism is opinion only, devoid of fact and incapable of defamatory meaning, even if one were asked to resign one's job as a result of the accusation.  Other colleagues, whose counsel I favor, disagreed and asserted that accusing an academic of racism is akin to accusing a youth coach of a child sex offense, in that the claim will persist indefinitely if one does not powerfully contest it.  Distinction between an individual's "racism," and "institutional" or "systemic" racism might complicate the legal analysis, but popular culture has pondered that distinction only recently.

Anti-SLAPP as the Sword of Goliath

A second compelling issue in the La Liberte case is the operation of anti-SLAPP law.  Anti-SLAPP laws, which vary in their particulars across the states, typically allow a defendant to attain fast dismissal of a lawsuit that is a "strategic lawsuit against public participation," that is, a lawsuit through which the plaintiff means to use tort law to suppress the defendant's exercise of civil rights, such as the freedoms of speech, assembly, and petition.  

That sounds good, but problems with anti-SLAPP law are legion.  One big problem is that American defamation law already tilts wildly in favor of defendants, a First Amendment prophylaxis gone corybantic, such that plaintiffs cannot usually get anywhere near the requisite burden of proof without the benefit of discovery.  Anti-SLAPP procedure allows the defendant to terminate the case before discovery can even happen.  

Joy Reid (Luke Harold CC0 1.0)
Designed in principle to protect, for paradigmatic example, a grassroots environmental campaign against the might of an unscrupulous real estate developer, anti-SLAPP in reality is more often deployed by the Goliaths of the latter ilk against Davidic pursuers.  Anti-SLAPP (ab)users include President Trump, Bill Cosby, and Big Media.  No wonder anti-SLAPP is the darling of the media defense bar.  The sad thing is that it's convinced the nonprofit media advocacy crowd to play along.

The proliferation of anti-SLAPP laws at the state level has generated a circuit split over what to do with them when a defamation case lands in federal court on diversity jurisdiction.  The analysis boils down to whether anti-SLAPP law is procedural, in which case it may not override federal rules, or substantive, in which case the federal court must apply the law of the state that governs the case.  The last couple of years have seen the emergence of a circuit split on the question, though the most recent precedents (2d, 5th, 11th, D.C. Circuits, contra 1st, 9th Circuits) point to the procedural conclusion, with which I agree.  

As a result, defamation cases that would have been smothered at birth in state court are given a chance to gasp for air in federal court.  Meanwhile, media advocates, including John Oliver—with whom I am loath to disagree, but he just doesn't get it—have been pushing hard for federal anti-SLAPP legislation.  A bill is pending in Congress, and with left-wing media advocates and right-wing mega-corporations on the same side, David's death blow might be but weeks away.

La Liberte arose amid this anti-SLAPP circuit split and was, in fact, the occasion on which the Second Circuit joined the recent majority trend.  The court reasoned that the California anti-SLAPP procedure, the defamation having occurred in California, is incompatible with Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12 and 56, governing motions to dismiss and for summary judgment.

Limited-Purpose Public Figures and the Involuntarily Infamous

La Liberte at the
City Council meeting
Also while the case rested with the Second Circuit, the court reversed the trial court on one more issue, the erroneous classification of La Liberte as a limited-purpose public figure.  That classification would compel La Liberte to prove the often fatal-in-fact fault standard "actual malice," that Reid knew her statements were false or was reckless with regard to their truth or falsity.  

La Liberte had not pleaded actual malice.  And, according to the court, her activism in speaking at city council meetings did not convert her from a private figure to a public figure.  La Liberte was never singled out in news coverage, the court observed, until after the alleged defamation catapulted her to public attention.  A defendant who is responsible for making a plaintiff infamous cannot thereafter escape liability by characterizing the plaintiff as a public figure.  

Incidentally, it's typically ironic that the media defendant here, Reid, purported to defend her free speech with the anti-SLAPP law while seeking to use the First Amendment-protected petitioning of the city council of the plaintiff, La Liberte, to defeat her effort to protect her reputation.

Enter 'the Lawyer for the Damned'

After remand to the Eastern District of New York, La Liberte terminated her representation by Wade, Grunberg & Wilson.  WG&W is a self-described "boutique firm" in Atlanta that boasts of a plaintiff's defamation practice, not a common thing, but maybe a growth area in our polarized post-truth society.  "The law of defamation is nuanced, peppered with landmines under the First Amendment, Anti-SLAPP Statutes, absolute immunities, and qualified privileges," WG&W writes on its website. "We know where those landmines are and, more importantly, how to navigate successfully around them."  WG&W notified the court of its withdrawal on September 28, 2020.

Wood, 2011 (Gage
Skidmore CC BY-SA 3.0)
The reason I suspect the case might now heat up, or at least jump on the express train to settlement town, is that on October 5, 2020, L. Lin Wood entered his appearance for the plaintiff.  Wood already had signed on some of the court papers, but he seems now to be stepping front and center.  Wood's breakthrough claim to fame was representing Richard Jewell, the man wrongly accused of the 1996 Centennial Olympic Park bombing against The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (there's a 2019 movie directed by Clint Eastwood).  His subsequent client list includes JonBenĂ©t Ramsey's parents, Gary Condit, Herman Cain, Elon Musk, and the Catholic high school student in the 2019 Lincoln Memorial confrontation, Nick Sandmann, as against The Washington Post.  Wood boasts that CBS news personality Dan Rather tagged him, "the lawyer for the damned."

The case is La Liberte v. Reid, No. 1:18-cv-05398 (E.D.N.Y. Sept. 30, 2019), reversed and remanded by No. 19-3574 (2d Cir. July 15, 2020).  I've not mentioned an ISP immunity issue in the case, on which the Second Circuit affirmed in favor of the plaintiff; read more by Eric Goldman (July 30, 2020).

Friday, October 23, 2020

Canadian privacy advocate deploys anti-SLAPP law in suit by electronic exam proctoring company

John Oliver's Big Coal SLAPP nemesis, Bob Murray, retires

Pixabay by Aksa2011
An IT specialist at a Canadian university is defending a lawsuit against a U.S. tech company over its allegations of copyright infringement and his allegations of infringement of student privacy.

Proctorio is an Arizona-based company offering online testing to academic institutions.  It's similar to ExamSoft, which is used by my law school, the Massachusetts Bar, and other academic and licensing organizations.

Needless to say, businesses in the mold of Proctorio and ExamSoft have taken off since the pandemic.  But these businesses are not without their problems, and their widespread use has brought unwanted scrutiny to their terms of service.

For example, the Electronic Frontier Foundation raised a red flag over ExamSoft in anticipation of its adoption to administer the California bar exam.  Examsoft's terms of service afford the company overbroad reach into the computers of users and, worse, collection of biometric data from studying their faces on screen.  My students have raised legitimate concerns about ExamSoft, and I will not be administering a "closed-book" final exam because I share those concerns.

UBC (GoToVan CC BY 2.0)

Related privacy worries motivated University of British Columbia learning technology specialist Ian Linkletter, MLIS, to tweet out the URLs of unlisted Proctorio instructional videos located at YouTube, meaning to make his case that the company is excessively intrusive of student privacy.  In response, the company sued Linkletter in British Columbia for copyright infringement and breach of confidence.

Now Linkletter has filed for dismissal under British Columbia's anti-SLAPP law.  Linkletter told the Vancouver Sun that fighting the lawsuit for just "more than a month has cost him and his wife tens out thousands of dollars."  Read more in Linkletter's public statement of October 16.

B.C.'s anti-SLAPP law was enacted unanimously by lawmakers in March 2019.  Oddly enough, B.C. lawmakers passed one of Canada's first anti-SLAPP laws in 2001, but quickly repealed it over doubts about its efficacy.  I wrote recently about the dark side of anti-SLAPP laws.  Never have I denied that they are sometimes deployed consistently with their laudable aims; rather, my concerns derive from their ready abuse when deployed against meritorious defamation and privacy causes.   

The case is Proctorio, Inc. v. Linkletter, Vancouver Reg. No. S-208730 (filed B.C. Sup. Ct. Sept. 20, 2020) (civil claim).

Bye, bye, Bob

[UPDATE, Oct. 27, 2020. To be clear, I wrote that sub-headline before this happened: "Coal giant Robert Murray passes away just days after announcing retirement" (Stephanie Grindley, WBOY, Oct. 25, 2020).]

In other, if distantly related, anti-SLAPP news, Bob Murray is resigning and retiring as board chairman of American Consolidated Natural Resource Holdings Inc., successor of Big Coal's Murray Energy.  It was a tangle with Murray that turned HBO comedian John Oliver into an anti-SLAPP champion.  And, I admit again, HBO's use of anti-SLAPP law was textbook and laudable after Murray brought a groundless suit against the network.

While I disagree with Oliver over anti-SLAPP, he's one of my favorite comedians and social activists, and definitely was the mic-drop-best live act I've ever seen.  Here are his key Murray Energy treatments from Last Week Tonight.

The first, June 18, 2017, drew Murray's lawsuit.

The second, November 10, 2019, followed up with a paean to anti-SLAPP, wrapping up with a musical tribute to Murray.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Anti-SLAPP is not all it's cracked up to be

John Oliver this week on Last Week revisited the defamation lawsuit he drew against HBO from Bob Murray and Murray Energy.  The piece brings viewers up to speed on the feud.


Murray just dropped the suit, which was on appeal of dismissal to the West Virginia Supreme Court.  That led Oliver to do this effective segment on the problem of strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs).  Oliver called on the 20 states without anti-SLAPP statutes to adopt them, lest nationwide speakers remain subject to lawsuit in lowest-common-denominator, plaintiff-friendly locales.

I'm a big John Oliver fan—next-level, best standup I've ever seen, not to mention having redefined social commentary through comedy—and a free speech and journalism advocate.  That said, I am on record in opposition to anti-SLAPP laws, and I remain so.  The laws are an ill fit to resolve the underlying problem of excessive transaction costs in litigation and work an unfairness against legitimate causes of action.  Our First Amendment law radically weights defamation tort law against plaintiffs like nowhere else in the world, admittedly prophylactically dismissing claims by genuinely injured plaintiffs.  Defendants don't need another weapon in their arsenal.

Oliver is right that there are plenty of cases in which litigation is abused in an effort to suppress free speech.  But anti-SLAPP laws sweep within their ambit nearly every defamation and privacy case.  Defamation plaintiffs who have been genuinely injured and have no SLAPP motivation whatsoever also must respond to anti-SLAPP motions and are likely to suffer dismissal and pain of attorneys' fees—not because their suits lack merits, but because they lack access to discovery to get their hands on real, existing evidence of malice, discovery that our civil litigation system routinely affords to tort plaintiffs in the interests of justice.

The essential concept of anti-SLAPP law is said to have originated in Colorado as a means to protect environmentalists from retaliatory litigation by developers.  If you want to see evidence of my doubts about the efficacy of anti-SLAPP legislation, look no farther than a decision by the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts just today, in which, literally, a property developer is the anti-SLAPP claimant in an epic litigation that has generated enormous transaction costs over anti-SLAPP procedure without ever reaching the merits of the case.

Anti-SLAPP laws look good on paper.  But they indiscriminately undermine tort law.  The effect of denying compensation to genuinely injured plaintiffs will be the effect of a failed tort system: unfairness, increased abuse by bad actors, and, ultimately, injured persons taking the law into their own hands.  Media advocates wonder why Generation Z, et seq., are hostile toward free speech.  Be careful what you wish for.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Anti-SLAPP helps free speech vanquish another foe! But is that always how it works?



The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) has rejected a defamation claim connected with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on anti-SLAPP grounds.  The case is Cardno ChemRisk v. Foytlin, No. SJC-12082 (Feb. 14, 2017).

Environmentalists Cherri Foytlin and Karen Savage authored an op-ed for a Huffington Post blog in which they accused scientific consulting firm Cardno ChemRisk, LLC, of “a long, and on at least one occasion fraudulent, history of defending big polluters using questionable ethics to help their clients avoid legal responsibility for their actions.”  With respect to “fraud[],” the writers had alleged that ChemRisk accepted payment “to discredit research” that would have been probative of liability in the pollution case that became the basis of the movie, Erin Brockovich. 

“Anti-SLAPP” motions, allowed in 28 states and D.C. according to the Digital Media Law Project, are pretrial, usually dispositive motions that allow defendants to have the court take an early look at the merits of a tort lawsuit, with an eye to dismissal.  A “SLAPP” is a “strategic lawsuit against public participation” and refers to a lawsuit, often but not necessarily defamation, that is brought more for the purpose of miring an opponent in the burdensome transaction of litigation than for the purpose of redressing wrongful injury.

A darling of the media defense bar, anti-SLAPP is heralded as a contemporary savior of the right to petition and protest.  Some—me included—are a good deal more skeptical, finding that anti-SLAPP is often just one more hammer in the well-heeled, corporate-defense-bar toolbox to pulverize a plaintiff who might have a legitimate grievance but needs discovery to prove it—and furthermore a disincentive to media defendants to mediate disputes or make reasonable settlement offers.  In fact, media defendant victorious on anti-SLAPP motions often are entitled to have their attorney fees paid by the plaintiff, a remarkable departure from “the American rule” norm in U.S. litigation.

The terms of anti-SLAPP statutes vary considerably with state law.  The Massachusetts anti-SLAPP law requires that the defendant have been exercising its “right to petition,” an allusion to the First Amendment.  But the scope of petitioning activity contemplated by the statute is much more permissive than the First Amendment doctrine.  The statute embraces “any statement reasonably likely to enlist public participation in an effort to effect” governmental “review of an issue.”

As the court described the Foytlin blog post, it was “part of the defendants’ ongoing efforts to influence governmental bodies by increasing the amount and tenor of coverage around the environmental consequences of the spill, and it closes with an implicit call for its readers to take action.”  In particular, ChemRisk complained on appeal that the bloggers were not advocating on their own behalf.  The SJC, per Justice Lenk, found the statute not so constrained.

This might have been the just outcome in this litigation.  I don’t pretend to know better.  The court wrote an excellent explication of the Massachusetts anti-SLAPP statute and how it works procedurally, as well as its policy purpose.  The court characterized the legislature’s purpose as “primarily to protect ‘citizens of modest means’ who speak out against larger, more powerful entities.”  According to a footnote, “Foytlin is a mother of six supporting herself with modest monthly stipends; she lives in Louisiana less than fifty miles from the affected portion of the Gulf Coast shore.”  I suppose ChemRisk is a brutal, evil company, like Spiga Biotech in Syfy TV’s Incorporated.  The opinion doesn’t say. 

I have no warm and fuzzy feelings for ChemRisk, nor for BP and its partners in oil drilling.  But before we sing another round of hymns in knee-jerk praise of anti-SLAPP legislation, let’s at least acknowledge that the statute nowhere turns on the relative social power of the parties, or on their wealth, or on their parental or corporate status.

Media Goliaths already have a thousand and one ways to win a defamation lawsuit, even upon publication of falsity and refusal to update, investigate, or correct.  Sometimes plaintiffs are just Davids whose lives have been up-ended by malicious allegations calculated to advance an agenda regardless of the collateral damage.  I know what I’m talking about.  Cutting off a plaintiff at the knees and chilling the right to petition of truly aggrieved individuals is hardly an effective response to the very real problem of litigation transaction costs.  Let’s not be too quick to congratulate ourselves on another win for free speech.