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Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Free torts textbook ready for academic year 2024-25


TORTZ: A Study of American Tort Law is complete and revised for the coming academic year 2024-25.

The two-volume textbook is posted for free download from SSRN (vol. 1, vol. 2), and available in hardcopy from Lulu.com at cost, about $30 per volume plus shipping.

This final iteration of the book now, for the first time, includes its final three chapters: (16) interference and business torts, (17) government liability and civil rights, and (18) tort alternatives.


TORTZ TABLE OF CONTENTS

Volume 1

Chapter 1: Introduction

A. Welcome
B. The Fundamental Problem
C. Parameters
D. Etymology and Vocabulary
E. “The Pound Progression”
F. Alternatives
G. Review

Chapter 2: Intentional Torts

A. Introduction
B. Assault

1. History
2. The Restatement of Torts
3. Subjective and Objective Testing
4. Modern Rule
5. Transferred Intent
6. Statutory Torts and Harassment

C. Battery

1. Modern Rule
2. The Eggshell Plaintiff
3. Knowledge of a Substantially Certain Result
4. Common Law Evolution and Battered Woman Syndrome

D. False Imprisonment

1. Modern Rule
2. Problems

E. Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress (IIED)

1. Dynamic Intent
2. Modern Rule
3. The “Heart Balm” Torts

F. Fraud

1. Fraud in Context
2. Modern Rule
3. Pleading Fraud
4. Exercise

G. The “Process” Torts

1. Innate Imprecision
2. Modern Rule
3. Majority Rejection of Malicious Civil Prosecution

H. “Prima Facie Tort”

1. Origin of Intentional Tort
2. Modern Rule

Chapter 3: Defenses to Intentional Torts 

A. Introduction
B. Defenses of Self, Other, and Property
C. The Spring Gun Case
D. Arrest Privilege and Merchant’s Privilege
E. Consent

1. Modern Rule
2. Scope of Consent
3. Medical Malpractice
4. Limits of Consent

F. Consent in Sport, or Recklessness

1. The Problem of Sport
2. Recklessness

Chapter 4: Negligence

A. Introduction
B. Modern Rule
C. Paradigmatic Cases
D. Historical and Theoretical Approaches to Negligence

1. Origin
2. Foreseeability
3. Custom
4. Augmented Standards
5. Economics

a. Introduction
b. “The Hand Formula”
c. Coase Theorem, Normativity, and Transaction Costs

6. Aristotelian Justice
7. Insurance and Loss-Spreading

E. Landowner Negligence, or Premises Liability

1. Theory of Duty and Standards of Breach
2. Common Law Tripartite Approach
3. Variations from the Unitary Approach in the Third Restatement
4. Applying the Framework, and Who Decides

F. Responsibility for Third-Party Conduct

1. Attenuated Causation, or “the Frances T.  Problem”: Negligence Liability in Creating Opportunity for a Criminal or Tortious Actor
2. Vicarious Liability and Attenuated Causation in the Employment Context: Respondeat Superior and “Direct” Negligence Theories

G. Statutory Torts and Negligence Per Se

1. Statutory Torts
2. Negligence Per Se

a. Introduction
b. Threshold Test
c. Three Mile Island

H. Medical Negligence
I. Spoliation of Evidence

1. Introduction
2. Minority Rule
3. Recognition or Non-Recognition of the Tort Approach
4. Majority Approach

J. Beyond Negligence

Chapter 5: Defenses to Negligence

A. Express Assumption of Risk (EAOR)
B. EAOR in Medical Negligence, and the Informed Consent Tort

1. Development of the Doctrine
2. The “Reasonable Patient” Standard
3. Modern Rule of Informed Consent
4. Causation in Informed Consent
5. Experimental Medicine

C. “Implied Assumption of Risk” (IAOR)

1. Everyday Life
2. Twentieth-Century Rule
3. Play and Sport
4. Work

D. Contributory Negligence

1. Twentieth-Century Rule
2. Complete Defense
3. Vitiation by “Last Clear Chance”

E. Comparative Fault
F. IAOR in the Age of Comparative Fault

1. The Demise of “IAOR”
2. Whither “Secondary Reasonable IAOR”?
3. Revisiting Mrs. Palsgraf at Gulfway General Hospital

G. Statutes of Limitations
H. Imputation of Negligence

Chapter 6: Subjective Standards

A. Introduction
B. Gender

1. The Reasonable Family
2. When Gender Matters

C. Youth

1. When Youth Matters
2. Attractive Nuisance
3. When Youth Doesn’t Matter

D. Mental Limitations

1. General Approach
2. Disputed Policy

Chapter 7: Strict Liability

A. Categorical Approach
B. Non-Natural Use of Land
C. Abnormally Dangerous Activities

1. Defining the Class
2. Modern Industry

D. Product Liability

1. Adoption of Strict Liability
2. Modern Norms
3. “Big Tobacco”
4. Frontiers of Product Liability

Chapter 8: Necessity

A. The Malleable Concept of Necessity
B. Necessity in Tort Law
C. Making Sense of Vincent
D. Necessity, the Liability Theory

Chapter 9: Damages

A. Introduction
B. Vocabulary of Damages
C. Theory of Damages
D. Calculation of Damages
E. Valuation of Intangibles
F. Remittitur
G. Wrongful Death and Survival Claims

1. Historical Common Law
2. Modern Statutory Framework

a. Lord Campbell’s Act and Wrongful Death
b. Survival of Action After Death of a Party

3. Problems of Application

H. “Wrongful Birth” and “Wrongful Life”
I. Punitive Damages

1. Introduction
2. Modern Rule
3. Pinpointing the Standard

J. Rethinking Death Compensation

Volume 2

Chapter 10: Res Ipsa Loquitur

A. Basic Rules of Proof
B. Res Ipsa Loquitur (RIL)

1. Modern Rule
2. Paradigmatic Fact Patterns

Chapter 11: Multiple Liabilities

A. Introduction
B. Alternative Liability
C. Joint and Ancillary Liability
D. Market-Share Liability Theory
E. Indemnification, Contribution, and Apportionment

1. Active-Passive Indemnity
2. Contribution and Apportionment
3. Apportionment and the Effect of Settlement

F. Rules and Evolving Models in Liability and Enforcement
G. Review and Application of Models

Chapter 12: Attenuated Duty and Causation

A. Introduction
B. Negligence Per Se Redux

1. The Problem in Duty
2. The Problem in Causation
3. The Problem in Public Policy

C. Duty Relationships and Causation Timelines

1. Introduction
2. Frances T. Redux, or Intervening Criminal Acts
3. Mental Illness and Tarasoff Liability
4. Dram Shop and Social Host Liability
5. Rescue Doctrine and “the Fire Fighter Rule”

a. Inverse Rules of Duty
b. Application and Limits

6. Palsgraf: The Orbit and the Stream

a. The Classic Case
b. A Deeper Dig

D. Principles of Duty and Causation

1. Duty
2. Causation

a. The Story of Causation
b. Proximate Cause in the Second Restatement
c. Scope of Liability in the Third Restatement
d. Proximate Cause in the Third Restatement, and Holdover Rules
e. A Study of Transition: Doull v. Foster

E. The Outer Bounds of Tort Law

1. Balancing the Fundamental Elements
2. Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress (NIED)

a. Rule of No Liability
b. Bystanders and Borderline NIED

3. Economic Loss Rule

a. The Injury Requirement
b. Outer Limits of Tort Law
c. Loss in Product Liability and the Single Integrated Product Rule

Chapter 13: Affirmative Duty

A. Social Policy
B. The American Rule
C. Comparative Perspectives
D. Bystander Effect, or “Kitty Genovese Syndrome”

Chapter 14: Nuisance and Property Torts

A. Trespass and Conversion
B. Private Nuisance
C. Public Nuisance and the Distinction Between Private and Public
D. “Super Tort”

Chapter 15: Communication and Media Torts

A. Origin of “Media Torts”
B. Defamation

1. Framework and Rules
2. Defamation of Private Figures

a. Defamation Proof
b. Defamation Defense

3. Anti-SLAPP Defense
4. Section 230 Defense
5. Constitutional Defamation

a. Sea Change: New York Times Co. v. Sullivan
b. Extending Sullivan
c. Reconsidering Sullivan

C. Invasion of Privacy

1. Framework and Rules

a. Disclosure
b. Intrusion
c. False Light
d. Right of Publicity
e. Data Protection

2. Constitutional Privacy and False Light
3. Demonstrative Cases

a. Disclosure and Intrusion
b. Right of Publicity
c. Bollea v. Gawker Media

4. Data Protection, Common Law, and Evolving Recognition of Dignitary Harms

Chapter 16: Interference and Business Torts

A. Business Torts in General

1. Tort Taxonomy
2. The Broad Landscape
3. Civil RICO

B. Wrongful Termination
C. Tortious Interference

Chapter 17: Government Liability and Civil Rights

A. Sovereign Immunity

1. Federal Tort Claim Act (FTCA) and Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA)
2. Text and History of the FTCA
3. Discretionary Function Immunity

B. Civil Rights

1. “Constitutional Tort”
2. Core Framework
3. Official Immunities
4. Climate Change

C. Qui Tam
D. Human Rights

1. Alien Tort Statute
2. Anti-Terrorism Laws

Chapter 18: Tort Alternatives

A. Worker Compensation

1. Introduction and History
2. Elements and Causation
3. Efficacy and Reform

B. Ad Hoc Compensation Funds

Thursday, March 7, 2024

UK anti-SLAPP bill takes fire

The United Kingdom has an anti-SLAPP bill on the table, and lawyer Gideon Benaim has cataloged objections.

In broad strokes, the bill follows the usual pattern of anti-SLAPP, looking for free speech and public interests on the part of the defendant, which then burdens the plaintiff with proving probable success on the merits out of the gate.

Benaim published his objections on the INFORRM blog, part 1 and part 2. Some of his objections track those that I articulated in 2021 as to American anti-SLAPP statutes. I lamented the unfairness of expecting a plaintiff to meet an extraordinary proof standard such as actual malice as to falsity without the benefit of discovery. The equivalent UK approach expects a plaintiff to overcome a bare public interest defense without the opportunity to probe the publisher's process or motives.

Benaim also points out, as I have, that anti-SLAPP is as likely to be invoked by the powerful against the weak as vice versa; Goliath media giant against aggrieved individual; or, as happened, President Trump against sexual assault complainant Stormy Daniels.

Benaim is a rarity, a plaintiff's lawyer in media torts. Not that everyday aggrieved individuals will be able to score a place on his client list, which includes JK Rowling, Naomi Campbell, Roman Polanski, and Gordon Ramsay.

At least in the United States, at least, the already daunting odds of prevailing in a media tort case against a publisher with expert defense counsel on retainer causes most would-be plaintiffs not to sue at all, no matter how just their causes. They can't find counsel and certainly can't navigate complex media torts pro se. And that's before anti-SLAPP comes into play, threatening a losing plaintiff with having to pay the attorney fees of the media giant's high-dollar representation.

As I've written before, anti-SLAPP works well when it works well. Statutes just aren't drafted to ensure that that's always the case. It looks like the UK is struggling with the same problem.

Friday, March 1, 2024

State high court simplifies anti-SLAPP, draws picture

Notwithstanding the merits of anti-SLAPP statutes—I've opined plenty, including a catalog of problems—the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts (SJC) in recent years made a mess of the state anti-SLAPP law by creating an arcane procedure that befuddled and frustrated the lower courts.

Yesterday the SJC admitted the arcanity and clarified the procedure. I'll note that one thing I like about the Mass. law is that it has a focused trigger in petitioning activity; that's not changing. It'll take me some time to work through the 50 pages of the opinion. But to my delight, there's a picture! The SJC kindly created a flow chart:

The case is Bristol Asphalt Co. v. Rochester Bituminous Products, Inc. (Mass. Feb. 29, 2024). The court then helpfully applied the new framework in another case the same day, Columbia Plaza Associates v. Northeastern University (Mass. Feb. 29, 2023). (Temporary posting of new opinions.)

The court's unofficial top technocrat, Chief Justice Scott L. Kafker authored both opinions. The court affirmed in both cases, denying the anti-SLAPP motion to strike in Bristol Asphalt and granting it in Columbia Plaza, so the lower courts waded their way to correct conclusions despite the mire.

Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Taxpayers help to fatten Big Law in prosecution that Chinese community chalks up to racial profiling

Rawpixel CC0
The American trend to embrace attorney fee-shifting is a cash cow for the corporate defense bar. A pending case speaks to the problem, as the Government seeks more than $600,000 in fees on behalf of white-shoe law firms from a man whom civil rights advocates say was racially profiled.

Waning of "the American Rule."  The American legal system is unusual in the world for its default rule that every party pays its own way in litigation. This "American rule" contrasts with "the English rule," adopted in most of the world's jurisdictions, by which "loser pays."

But in part in acknowledgement of the abnormally high transaction costs, especially attorney fees, of litigation in the United States, some statutory systems have adopted the English rule. In civil rights, for example, key federal statutes require fee-shifting to victorious plaintiffs. The concern is that the victims of civil rights violations will not otherwise be able to incentivize lawyers to take their cases.

That logic has leached out of civil rights, though, into ever more adjacent areas of legal practice. Most civil claims are filed against corporations, and most civil claims are unsuccessful. So corporations and their lawyers have been keen to think of new ways to be paid for their trouble, if not to deter lawsuits to begin with. 

A key such area is anti-SLAPP, that is, legal measures against "strategic lawsuits against public participation." Anti-SLAPP, about which I have written many times, is wildly popular with lawmakers: now the law in a majority of states, perennially proposed in Congress, and presently being drafted into EU law.

Anti-SLAPP began as a modest and rational means to deter corporations from weaponizing frivolous litigation against protestors, silencing them with legal fees. Thus, many anti-SLAPP laws penalize unsuccessful civil plaintiffs by charging them for the defendant's attorney fees. But the corporate media defense bar fell in love with anti-SLAPP. It's now a potent weapon for corporations to silence persons who dare say they've been defamed, or had their privacy invaded, in mass publication. 

It's important to remember that just because a plaintiff is unsuccessful in civil litigation does not mean that the plaintiff was not wronged. Defamation and privacy law is rife with defendant-friendly mechanisms designed to over-protect media defendants from even meritorious claims, from evidentiary privileges, to limitations on discovery, to daunting burdens such as the New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (U.S. 1964) "actual malice" standard. Anti-SLAPP piles on another prophylactic defense, one that works so fast, a defendant need not even answer the complaint.

I've been consistent in my opposition to anti-SLAPP's poisonous growth, especially its fee-shifting penalty. Frequent litigant Donald Trump, by the way, has been on both sides of anti-SLAPP fees, having been awarded nearly $300,000 in attorney fees against Stormy Daniels in response to her claim of defamation. It sometimes amuses me and sometimes saddens me to see civil rights advocates, journalists, and media law professors align themselves with mega-corporations in publishing, eager to line the pockets of Big Law.

United States v. Yu. The instant case is criminal, not civil. But the case involves a civil restitution statute that allows for a criminal defendant to be charged with the legal fees incurred by a "victim." 

Haoyang Yu, a naturalized U.S. citizen of Chinese descent, was a Boston-area engineer charged with 21 crimes in connection with his work developing chip technology for Analog Devices, Inc. (ADI). The court dismissed one charge and acquitted Yu of another before submitting 19 charges to the jury. The jury acquitted Yu of 18 charges and convicted him of one only: illegal possession of trade secrets. 

More or less, Yu took his work home with him, and his work included a proprietary chip design. The government had accused Yu of much worse: intention to steal ADI tech either to start his own company or to pass research to the Chinese government. Yu was caught up in a government crackdown amid fear of foreign espionage in the American tech industry. The evidence did not bear out the suspicion.

Critics point to Yu's Chinese origin and ancestry to allege that he was a victim of racial profiling. The trial judge in the case even acknowledged, "It's hard to say that Mr. Yu’s race or ethnicity was not a factor here" (Lexington Observer, June 2, 2023). APA (Asian Pacific American) Justice has tracked Yu's case. The Intercept covered the case in 2022. Critics pointed out that allegations such as those in Yu typically are resolved in mere civil litigation over theft of trade secrets. Yu was sentenced to six months' imprisonment and a fine, and then was sued by ADI.

The part of the case pertinent here is the Government's motion in federal district court that Yu be ordered to pay $606,879 to ADI attorneys at high-end firms WilmerHale and Quinn Emanuel. The Government invoked the Mandatory Restitution to Victims Act (MRVA).

The MRVA was enacted in 1996. A U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) summary of the law doesn't much conjure a corporation as the kind of "victim" the law was meant to help. DOJ imagined "[v]ictims of crimes such as telemarketing, child exploitation, interstate domestic violence and sexual assault." The summary contemplates victims' "lost income and necessary child care, transportation, and other expenses related to participation in the investigation or prosecution of the offense."

In contrast, the fat legal bills in Yu include, according to, e.g., Brian Dowling at Law360 (subscription), $1,865 per hour for a Quinn Emanuel partner to watch the trial from the gallery. Other hourly rates at Quinn range from $320 for a paralegal, $880 for a second-year associate, and $1,095 for a fourth-year associate, to $1,440 for "counsel."

When I was in practice in the mid-1990s, as a first- and second-year associate, my billing rate with Big Law in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., was in the neighborhood of $120 per hour. I made about $25 per hour. Today, in academics, I make about $115 per hour (unrealistically assuming I work only 40 hours per week for nine months). According to public data, my students graduating UMass Law today will make about what I did in 1995, public or private sector. No adjustment for inflation.

Multiplying out the Quinn counsel rate yields $2.88m per year. Even if only 20% is paid out in salary, that's $576,000 per year. Not bad. I bet, though, that the $1,865/hr. attorney, a former Acting U.S. Attorney, takes home better than 20%. I guess the difference between the 1990s and now is that back then, shame was still a thing. 

Meanwhile, the bar is eager to tell law schools that it no longer can afford to mentor and train lawyers on the job, and that we should purge from the curriculum the esoteria of legal theory and public policy in favor of producing "practice ready" billing machines.

Quinn Emanuel has an entertainment and media litigation group that defends defamation and privacy claims for mass-market publishers. If I find myself defamed or otherwise wronged by a Quinn Emanuel media client, I shudder to think what the tab might be if I sue, but can't prove actual malice. Thanks to anti-SLAPP fee-shifting, Quinn Emanuel can be very well compensated even if one of its clients is negligent in decimating a person's reputation.

Next time a purported champion of the First Amendment or Fourth Estate tells you what a good idea anti-SLAPP is, think about the mahogany furniture and extravagant lifestyle of the Big Law Boston lawyer.

In an MRVA case, Big Law even gets the benefit of taxpayer-funded litigation to get paid, as the Government carries on the demand on behalf of the "victim."

The parties in Yu are now wrangling over the fee demand. The court asked the Government to break down the ask in a spreadsheet. The Government filed a data disc in December.

The case is United States v. Yu (D. Mass. indictment filed 2019), Judge William G. Young presiding.

Wednesday, September 13, 2023

Big Ag plays Goliath in film about GMO-seed litigation

A worthwhile movie you might have missed during the pandemic is Percy vs. Goliath (2020), starring Christopher Walken and Zach Braff, involving Canadian lawsuits over GMO seed contamination.

I caught up with the film last weekend. As the title suggests, it's a David vs. Goliath story about a workaday Canadian farmer, Percy Schmeiser (Walken) sued by agriculture giant Monsanto when Roundup-resistant canola strains turned up in the farmer's fields in Saskatchewan. Schmeiser countersued for libel and trespass.

The real-life case is Monsanto Canada Inc. v. Schmeiser (Can. 2004). The real-life Percy died in 2020 soon after the film was completed. There have been several documentaries about the case, besides this fictionalization.

Spoilers ahead.

Something I liked and had not expected in the film is the depiction of Percy's visit to India. The filmmakers do a good job conveying the fact that GMO seed drift and patent exclusivity is a worldwide problem. The film doesn't directly tackle the unknown risks of GMOs, both to human health and in global monoculture, but they're implicit in Percy's reasons for resisting GMO tech.

The film also doesn't tackle the separate problem of Roundup toxicity, which fueled mass tort litigation in the United States only later, in the 2010s. But the repeated mention of the product can't help but bring the issue to mind with the benefit of hindsight. (Certainly it brings the issue to my mind, remembering my summer work as a landscape laborer, Roundup streaming down my arms. Though that's nothing compared with soaked workers I saw on Central American fruit plantations in the 1990s.) Bayer acquired Monsanto in 2018 and agreed to settlements over Roundup in 2020. 

Percy mostly won in the end, in that Monsanto could not prove deliberate appropriation. But the court did find patent infringement and required Percy to surrender his seeds to Monsanto.

In the United States, the Supreme Court in 2013 ruled in favor of Monsanto in a seed case with different facts, Bowman v. Monsanto Co. An Indiana farmer had replanted seeds that Monsanto clients had sold to a grain elevator in violation of Monsanto's license, which prohibited downstream reuse. The later buyer infringed the patent, the court concluded.

In a U.S. case closer to Schmeiser but with a different procedural history, a broad farming coalition sought to nullify Monsanto patents to head off infringement claims they saw as an inevitable result of genetic drift. The court rejected the suit in Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association v. Monsanto Co. (Fed. Cir. 2013) for lack of controversy. Monsanto thereafter announced that it would not pursue infringement claims against non-client farmers for Roundup-resistant strains as long as they didn't use Roundup.

Informative for comparative law class, the film, Percy, includes a short courtroom scene toward the end in which Percy's solo lawyer Jackson Weaver (Braff) argues against the Big Ag sharks in the Canadian high court. Christina Ricci turned in an enjoyable supporting performance as environmental activist lawyer Rebecca Salcau. I recall that Ricci delightfully played scrappy attorney Liza Bump in the final season of Ally McBeal.

Weaver's and Salcau's resource limitations in facing off against Big Ag brought to mind A Civil Action (1998), and Percy overall is reminiscent of Dark Waters (2019) (on this blog). Percy's quiet tribulation is not the stuff of blockbusters, but it's surely worth the watch for anyone interested in the broad range of issues it raises in environmentalism, agriculture, food supply, civil litigation, product liability, intellectual property, and corporatocracy.

Though it was not a policy point in the film, I found compelling attorney Weaver's warning to Percy that losing the case would mean not only compensation on the merits to Monsanto, but liability to Monsanto for hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees for the very Big Ag attorneys who rendered the litigation playing field so unlevel as might, circularly, precipitate the loss.

Such is the rule for attorney fees in Canada and most of the world, and, alarmingly to me, more and more, by statute, in the United States. Civil rights advocates and the plaintiff bar herald attorney-fee shifting as vital to facilitate access to the courts for injured persons. But when the burn works both ways and a corporate Goliath prevails, the result should give us pause before wholeheartedly chucking out the pay-your-own-way rule of American common law. Writ small, this precisely is one of my objections to anti-SLAPP laws that place genuinely victimized individual plaintiffs at risk of having to pay outrageous fee awards to compensate corporate mass media defense attorneys.

I watched Percy vs. Goliath on the Roku Channel with ads. The film is available for less than $4 on many streaming platforms.

Wednesday, September 6, 2023

Anti-SLAPP protects doctor for reporting patient-doctor's opioid use to physician treatment authority

Cindy Shebley CC BY 2.0 via Flickr
A doctor who prescribed opioids for a fellow doctor and ultimately reported the patient-doctor for possible impairment by addiction was protected by anti-SLAPP law when the patient-doctor sued, the Massachusetts Appeals Court held in June.

The two doctors' relationships started when the defendant, a primary care physician, prescribed the plaintiff, an ophthalmologist, Percocet, which contains oxycodone, to manage migraines. In time, the defendant became concerned about the plaintiff's ongoing use of opioids. After unsatisfactory back-and-forth with the plaintiff, the defendant reported his concerns to Physician Health Services (PHS), a nonprofit corporation created by the Massachusetts Medical Society, which in turn is a creation of the legislature. The plaintiff ultimately accepted addiction counseling upon PHS recommendation.

The plaintiff sued the defendant for negligence, tortious interference, civil rights violation, and invasion of privacy. The defendant invoked the Massachusetts anti-SLAPP law, and the court dismissed. The Appeals Court affirmed.

I'm on record as an anti-SLAPP skeptic, while acknowledging that anti-SLAPP laws sometimes facilitate a sound outcome. To my satisfaction, the Massachusetts law is narrow in some key regards, including the requirement that a defendant's conduct must be substantially related to a petitioning to governmental officials. In June 2021, I wrote about the failure of an anti-SLAPP defense when the Appeals Court opined that defendants' alleged extortive expression was not sufficiently closely related to the zoning disposition with which the defendant was alleged to have sought to interfere.

In the instant case, the Appeals Court had little trouble determining that the defendant's reports to PHS were substantially related to government petitioning. Physician peer reporting is required by law upon reasonable belief in a violation of regulation. And it was understood, the court reasoned, that reporting to PHS, which specializes in treatment for drug and alcohol impairment, was an intermediate step that would result in reporting to the state licensing authority if the matter could not be resolved.

"It follows, therefore, that the defendant's communication to PHS regarding his concern about the plaintiff is protected," the court wrote, "unless the plaintiff can show either that the defendant failed to act in good faith or that he had no reasonable belief that the communication furthered the purpose of PHS."

The case is Berk v. Kronlund, No. 22-P-4 (Mass. App. Ct. June 14, 2023) (FindLaw). Justice Kenneth V. Desmond Jr. wrote the opinion of the unanimous panel that also comprised Justices Wolohojian and Blake.

Tuesday, April 18, 2023

Dominion v. Fox News evidences 'actual malice,' also shows how standard has fueled misinformation

(UPDATE, April 18, at 5:17 p.m.: NBC News reported a half hour ago that Dominion and Fox News reached a $787.5m settlement.)

CBS Sunday Morning did a nice piece this week on Dominion v. Fox News and the long heralded, but ever more evidently problematic, "actual malice" standard.

The piece explains the N.Y. Times v. Sullivan (U.S. 1964) "actual malice" standard in public-figure-plaintiff defamation cases such as Dominion, and how the standard is exceptionally provable upon the extraordinary evidence Dominion uncovered about Fox personalities' duplicity in knowingly professing misinformation.


Many a media pundit has made the observation on the seeming provability of actual malice in the case. CBS's voice for the point is that of Lee Levine, a highly regarded, now retired attorney who represented mass media companies in famous cases before the federal courts. In the Sunday segment, Levine says something along the lines of rarely if ever having seen an actual malice case he could believe in before now.

With Stephen Wermiel, Levine wrote a book, Progeny, about the "fight to preserve the legacy of ... Sullivan."  It's a good book on its merits. At the same time, its rhetoric and thesis well serve to bolster the social and economic power of the mass media business establishment.

As on CBS, Levine and lawyers like him often are held up as standard bearers for the First Amendment. But the corporations they represent are hardly freedom fighters in the romantic tradition of the lone pamphleteer.

I've long opposed Sullivan as a matter of constitutional fidelity or First Amendment imperative. It takes ill account of competing values, such as the right of personal reputation that has caused other western-democratic jurisdictions, such as Canada and Europe, to reject the standard as too stringent. As internet democratization has made it easier for ordinary people to be devastated by reputational harm, Sullivan has become ever more indefensible.

Dominion ought not be regarded as the rare exception that proves the rule. The plaintiff-company is able to make its case only because, to date, it has been sufficiently determined and well resourced to get over the many hurdles, such as anti-SLAPP statutes, that usually shield mass media from accountability. Most defamation plaintiffs, if they sue at all, see their cases dismissed without the benefit of discovery.

Dominion ought instead be taken as evidence in the mounting case that Sullivan has been a powerful cause of our misinformation crisis.

Friday, April 14, 2023

South African court upholds common law abuse of process as defense in prototypical anti-enviro SLAPP

Petitioners demand EU anti-SLAPP legislation in 2022.
Ekō via Flickr CC BY 2.0
The Constitutional Court of South Africa upheld the use of common law abuse of process in defense of environmental activists against a defamation claim by a mining company.

I wrote about this case in its lower court iteration in 2021. The plaintiff mining company rather boldly sued the environmentalists to chill their activism with the burdens of litigation. Deputy Judge President of the Western Cape High Court Patricia Goliath employed a creative adaptation of common law abuse of process—conventionally a tort, not a defense—to work in the case like an anti-SLAPP law, which South Africa does not have as a matter of statute.

I have written at length on anti-SLAPP cases. I am not a fan of anti-SLAPP laws, but acknowledge that they can function well to protect the freedoms of expression and petition in cases that fit the historical pattern for which anti-SLAPP was conceived. Protecting environmentalists against developers is the very prototype, so I lauded DJP Goliath's decision.

In November 2022, the Constitutional Court upheld the abuse-of-process theory. The court expressly recognized the abuse-of-process defense as an anti-SLAPP measure and an evolution of common law. The court rejected the mining company's objection to the adaptations required to make abuse of process work. The common law test for the tort in South Africa requires that a claim have a near certainty of failure; the court refused to hold the defendant environmentalists to that burden. The common law test also did not allow abuse of process to be determined wholly upon ulterior motive. The court ruled that ulterior motive could support the abuse-of-process defense.

As I wrote in 2021, I prefer the common law approach to the blunt and overbroad device of statutory anti-SLAPP that prevails in the United States. The South African approach takes care to assess the power imbalance between the litigants to ensure conformity with the anti-SLAPP pattern. In the United States, anti-SLAPP is distorted to empower media conglomerates and public figures to extract high-dollar attorney fee awards from genuinely injured claimants who can't meet extraordinary requirements of proof upon mere pleading.

The case is Mineral Sands Resources (Pty) Ltd v Reddell, (CCT 66/21) [2022] ZACC 37; 2023 (2) SA 68 (CC) (14 November 2022). Justice Steven Arnold Majiedt authored the unanimous judgment.

Thursday, September 15, 2022

Land dispute implicates 'second element of second path of second stage' of anti-SLAPP analysis, and we're all supposed to pretend the world's better for it

The Supreme Judicial Court studies its anti-SLAPP framework.
Argonne National Laboratory CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 via Flickr

Anti-SLAPP analysis in Massachusetts has become a Rube Goldberg machine disguising little more than an "I know it when I see it" test—

—so I contend, and I offer a Massachusetts Appeals Court case decided Tuesday as evidence.

I've written many times about anti-SLAPP, including my contention that the device can be used meritoriously, but is as often deployed to contrary ends, a sword for Goliath to strike down David; the legion dysfunctions of tort law that anti-SLAPP amplifies; and the possible better solution to be found in process torts and similar related mechanisms of accountability in law practice and procedure.

As Massachusetts courts have struggled to differentiate meritorious actions from SLAPPs under the Commonwealth's characteristically convoluted statute, I ultimately gave up trying to keep up with the ever more complicated thicket of rules and procedures leaching out from appellate decisions. So The Savory Tort should not be your first stop if you're trying to get a granular grip on the current landscape here.

Yet I can't help but write about this most recent appellate opinion. To my reading, the court poorly disguised its doubts about burgeoning and burdensome anti-SLAPP process, and whether time, money, and justice can all be saved at the same time.

The underlying dispute was a land matter. The plaintiff, seeking quiet title and adverse possession, was partially successful in a somewhat protracted litigation. Later, if before the expiry of a three-year limitations period, the respondent from the land action filed the present case, alleging abuse of process and intentional infliction of emotional distress by way of the earlier case. The land plaintiff from the earlier case, now the process and IIED defendant, raised the Massachusetts anti-SLAPP statute in defense.

First, I take the occurrence here of abuse of process as evidence in support of my position that anti-SLAPP is often really about process wrongs. Though here the anti-SLAPP movant is the one accused of abuse of process, it is typical in process tort cases for accusations of misconduct to fly simultaneously in both directions. Regardless of whether a jurisdiction recognizes abuse of process as a cause of action per se, courts have the power to manage process objections with a range of existing tools. I wrote about abuse of process appearing as a defensive mechanism, essentially a better tailored anti-SLAPP device, in South Africa. And my 1L torts class just yesterday read Lee Tat Development, a well reasoned 2018 opinion, included in my casebook, in which the Singapore Court of Appeals both rejected the abuse of process as a tort action and thoroughly discussed alternatives.

The Massachusetts Appeals court devoted a dense 10 pages to the blow by blow between the parties in the instant case. I won't retell it here. What's compelling is what the court had to say about its job in reviewing the Superior Court's anti-SLAPP ruling. Quoting the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) in the Exxon case, which I reported recently, the Appeals Court's opening line oozes disrelish:

"This case involves yet another example of the 'ever-increasing complexity of the anti-SLAPP case law,' and the 'difficult and time consuming' resolution of special motions to dismiss pursuant to the 'anti-SLAPP' statute."

The partial quotes read like the court is feigning innocent pleading to the Supremes, "These are your words. We're just repeating them."

In analyzing the instant case according to the painstaking legal framework that the SJC has eked out of case experience, the Appeals Court located the present dispute in "the second element of the second path of the second stage."

What is the second element of the second path of the second stage, you ask?

Well, it's that the "judge must 'assess the "totality of the circumstances pertinent to the nonmoving party's asserted primary purpose in bringing its claim," and ... determine whether the nonmoving party's claim constitutes a SLAPP suit.'"

Isn't that the whole game?

I humbly propose that the good ship Commonsense has already sailed when we start talking about a second element of a second path of a second stage.

The Appeals Court divulged a tone somewhere between surprise and pride when it concluded "that the [Superior Court] judge followed the augmented framework sequentially, assiduously, and judiciously." Adjectives "comprehensive" and "thoughtful" followed.

Then, around page 27, the court hints at deeper problems.

The [landowners'] arguments demonstrate some of the difficulties associated with the application of the augmented framework. On one hand, the present action presents as a typical SLAPP case in that a supposedly wealthy developer sued abutters of supposedly modest means for petitioning in court to challenge a development project.... On the other hand, the [landowners] averred that far from being wealthy and powerful developers, they were a real estate broker and part-time bookkeeper attempting to develop a single-family residential property, while the [anti-SLAPP movants] were not the "individual citizens of modest means" contemplated by the anti-SLAPP law. The parties contested each other's motivations and representations. There is an inherent difficulty and, in some cases, prematurity in requiring a judge to make credibility determinations and discern a party's primary motivation predicated on affidavits, pleadings, and proffers, and not on a more complete evidentiary record scrutinized through cross-examination.

Some pages later, the court returned more directly but cautiously to the question of anti-SLAPP efficacy:

In this regard, as we have noted, the [landowners] insist that the present action cries out for a jury trial as the only appropriate way to resolve critical credibility disputes and determine the parties' true motivations. This argument has some force in that there are obvious difficulties in ... requiring judges to be fairly assured that the challenged claim is not a SLAPP suit, absent full discovery and testimony tested through cross-examination. Yet, the special motion to dismiss remedy exists, in large part, to avoid costly litigation and trial.... In any event, it is for the Supreme Judicial Court or the Legislature to address and resolve these concerns should they so choose.

At the tail end of a 34-page appellate opinion on meta-litigation over a small land matter and a lot of bad blood, one might wonder how much "costly litigation" was avoided.

The problem is with anti-SLAPP itself. The court is being asked to adjudge the motives of a litigant in the absence of evidence for the very purpose of avoiding the cost of collecting evidence.

We don't have a SLAPP problem. We have a transaction costs problem. Slapping a bandage on it with anti-SLAPP only invites perverse results. And the harder one tries to get right a call about evidence without the evidence, the more costly and perverse the results will be.

The case is Nyberg v. Wheltle, No. 21-P-791 (Mass. App. Ct. Sept. 13, 2022) (temporary court posting). Judge Eric Neyman wrote the opinion for a unanimous panel.

UPDATE, Sept. 16: Notwithstanding the ill wisdom of anti-SLAPP, the fad flourishes. Europe and the UK continue their headlong advances toward legislation, and a new bill in the U.S. Congress seeks to bring anti-SLAPP to U.S. federal courts. Enjoy, judges! I don't expect that the extinction of the defamation cause of action will do much to remedy our problems with misinformation and vitriolic divisiveness, but that seems to be the experiment we're determined to carry out.

Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Court denies Exxon anti-SLAPP relief in Mass. climate claims; European court bemoans Russian SLAPP

AG Maura Healey
The Massachusetts anti-SLAPP statute does not work in defense of Attorney General enforcement actions, the Supreme Judicial Court decided in May in climate change litigation against Exxon Mobil Corp. Europe and the UK, meanwhile, are working out their approaches to anti-SLAPP.

I am in general anti anti-SLAPP, because the statutes are drawn too broadly. I recited my lamentations in April 2021. I support anti-SLAPP in principle when it works the way it was intended, but broadly drawn anti-SLAPP statutes create innumerable headaches and are used to protect Goliath from David as often as the other way around. Exxon's attempted reliance on the law fits the mold.

With the usual American MO, anti-SLAPP statutes try to slap an ill-fitting patchwork fix on a systemic problem, which is transaction costs in civil litigation, declaring the problem solved while in fact it festers, rotting social and political institutions from the inside out. Only when a bridge collapses does everybody momentarily notice, and then we move on.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court narrowly saved the bridge from collapse this time by rejecting Exxon Mobil's invocation of the commonwealth's typically broad anti-SLAPP statute. Exxon is defending itself against Attorney General Maura Healey. The AG accuses Exxon of deceptive statements that concealed what Big Oil knew about the climate risk of fossil fuel extraction, thus, responsibility for climate change. 

State and locality climate change lawsuits against Big Oil are proliferating in the United States and the world right now, as governments try to figure out where they will get the money to bolster infrastructure against rising sea levels and tempestuous weather events. In the context of "super torts," I wrote in November 2020 about the lawsuit against Big Oil by my home state of Rhode Island. By focusing on claims in state law, public plaintiffs such as my childhood hometown of Baltimore have managed to steer their claims into state court, evading the impact of a U.S. Supreme Court inclination to see the claims in federal court, as Big Oil defendants would prefer.

Accordingly, AG Healey is pursuing the commonwealth claim under Massachusetts's expansive unfair and deceptive practices act, chapter 93A. The powerful law affords double and treble damages and attorney fees in cases of willful and knowing violations, and it can be used as a private or public enforcement mechanism.

Exxon attempted to use the commonwealth's anti-SLAPP statute in its defense. The essence of Exxon's public statements about the environmental safety fossil fuels constituted participation in the public marketplace of ideas, Exxon asserts, so the AG's persecution is just the sort of action that anti-SLAPP should head off.

One limitation, thankfully, in the Massachusetts anti-SLAPP law is that it hinges on petition activity, not merely free speech. There is some margin around the word "petition," as the statute draws in public statements "reasonably likely to encourage consideration or review of an issue" by government. But the anti-SLAPP statute cannot be triggered simply because whatever civil wrong the defendant is accused of was accomplished by way of communication.

The AG objected to Exxon's invocation of anti-SLAPP on this distinction, because Big Oil made plenty of problematic statements to the public. I think she's right. But the court did not get that far. Rather, the court held in favor of the AG on her alternative argument, that the anti-SLAPP statute simply does not apply to public enforcement actions by the AG.

There is a questionable logic to Exxon's theory that petitioning must be protected against attack when the attacker is the petition-ee, government. A petitioner might be expected instead to make a First Amendment retaliation claim, if the attack theory holds up. Also, the anti-SLAPP statute, in a second provision, authorizes intervention by the AG on behalf of anti-SLAPP movants. So the legislature knew how to say "attorney general" when it wanted to, and the AG isn't mentioned anywhere else.

More importantly, the Supreme Judicial Court held, defense against a public enforcement action is not consistent with the legislative purpose of the anti-SLAPP statute: "The legislative history makes clear that the motivation for the anti-SLAPP statute was vexatious, private lawsuits, especially ones filed by developers to prevent local opposition to zoning approval." That's the paradigmatic case that gave birth to anti-SLAPP in 1988.

The court observed that its holding accords with one other jurisdiction that has considered the same problem. The Supreme Judicial Court of Maine declined to apply its anti-SLAPP statute in a municipal enforcement action for a zoning violation, despite the would-be movant's assertion of victimization.

Curious, though, that mass-media-Goliath defense against defamation and privacy lawsuits didn't get a mention in the court's main text. In a telling footnote, the court opined:

Although originally drafted with a particular purpose in mind—that is, the prevention of lawsuits used by developers to punish and dissuade those objecting to their projects in the permitting process—the anti-SLAPP statute's broadly drafted provisions, particularly its wide-ranging definition of petitioning activity, have led to a significant expansion of its application.... The ever-increasing complexity of the anti-SLAPP case law has also made resolution of these cases difficult and time consuming.... We recognize that this case law may require further reconsideration and simplification to ensure that the statutory purposes of the anti-SLAPP statute are accomplished and the orderly resolution of these cases is not disrupted.... We also note that other States have defined petitioning activity more narrowly and that bills have been filed in our Legislature to do the same....

I don't want to be an I-told-you-so, but.... 

Europe and the UK might ought take heed.

The UK invited public comment in a consultation in the spring as it ponders anti-SLAPP, and the European Commission is working out legislation now for the European Union.

In a March judgment, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) recognized SLAPPs as a human rights problem. The court held that a regional Russian government had violated free speech rights with a civil defamation action against an online media outlet critical of officials. 

Of course, the Massachusetts and Maine cases should only aggravate the European court's worry, because it was a public authority that was the complainant in Russia. What if AG Healey were on a crusade against news outlets, using the deceptive practices law to persecute newspapers critical of the commonwealth government? (Is that how Exxon sees itself, victimized?) Would anti-SLAPP not be an apt defense?

The problem did not wholly escape the court's notice. The court struggled to distinguish an earlier Massachusetts case, Hanover, in which the applicability of anti-SLAPP in public enforcement simply had not been challenged when a town sued a union in a row over procurement. In a final footnote, the court wrote: "We note that the union in Hanover was not seeking to employ the anti-SLAPP statute to prevent local government enforcement of laws. As the issue was not raised in that case, and is not raised here, we need not decide whether any or all local government enforcement actions are beyond the scope of the anti-SLAPP statute."

So while the court lamented the burgeoning complexity of anti-SLAPP with one breath, it opened the door to more confusion with the next.

Hanover was characterized as an abuse-of-process suit, and therein lies a suggestion, I believe and have written before, of a better way to manage SLAPPs.

The Massachusetts case is Commonwealth v. Exxon Mobil, No. SJC-13211 (Mass. May 24, 2022). Justice Scott Kafker wrote the unanimous opinion. Track the case at the Climate Change Litigation Database.

The ECtHR case is OOO Memo v. Russia, No. 2840/10 (Eur. Ct. Hum. Rts. Mar. 15, 2022).

Monday, June 7, 2021

Extortion claim survives anti-SLAPP motion because defendants could not show petitioning connection

Haverhill, Mass., on the Merrimack River, 2008
(photo by Fletcher6 CC BY-SA 3.0)
Defendants could not raise an anti-SLAPP law against allegations of extortion, the Massachusetts Appeals court ruled before the Memorial Day weekend, because extortion did not relate plausibly to the defendants' constitutionally protected petitioning.

Plaintiffs Stem Haverhill and owner Caroline Pineau were applicants for zoning ordinance changes to permit a marijuana dispensary, since opened, in the downtown riverfront district of Haverhill, Massachusetts, a city 35 miles north of Boston, on the New Hampshire border.  Defendants Brad Brooks and Lloyd Jennings leased nearby residential and restaurant space and opposed the zoning changes.

Brooks and Jennings had had a scrap over property boundary with the previous owner of the Stem lot and had paid $30,000 to resolve the matter.  According to the complaint, Brooks and Jennings, apparently bitter over the former matter, demanded more than $30,000 from Pineau as the price of their acquiescence to zoning changes, no matter what the proposed use.

Stem and Pineau sued under the broad Massachusetts tort-and-consumer-protection statute, chapter 93A, as well as state civil rights law and common law defamation.  As often occurs in anti-SLAPP suits, both parties claimed the exercise of constitutional rights.  The plaintiffs were petitioning the government for zoning changes.  The defendants invoked anti-SLAPP upon the theory that the plaintiffs' civil charges of extortion were calculated to interfere with defendants' petition of government in opposition to the zoning changes.  (Read more about anti-SLAPP on this blog.)

The Massachusetts anti-SLAPP statute facilitates dismissal in favor of the defense by special motion upon the theory that litigation is being weaponized to chill the defendant's (or counter-defendant's) free exercise of the right to petition.  As construed by the Supreme Judicial Court, and quoted in part in the instant case, "a defendant seeking dismissal must show, at the threshold, that the claims against it 'are based solely on [its] exercise of its [constitutional] right to petition.'"

The extortion allegations did not fit the anti-SLAPP pattern, the court concluded, affirming the trial court on de novo review.  "Here, some of the defendants' statements to the Pineaus cannot reasonably be viewed as relating to the defendants' petitioning activities. As discussed, the defendants' focus was to obtain money from Pineau that the defendants knew Pineau did not owe to them."  Litigation in the Land Court could not produce a financial award, the court observed, thus undermining the defendants' position.  The court further reasoned:

Here the defendants did not merely oppose Pineau's proposed business, nor did they merely seek to negotiate their price.  Rather, the complaint describes a concerted and extended effort to coerce Pineau to pay, "or else"—complete with thinly veiled threats such as that Pineau "doesn't know who she is dealing with." The complaint thus adequately describes extortion—coercion by improper means that is designed to reap an economic reward. Such actions, in the business context, can be actionable under c[hapter] 93A, and given the facts alleged here, the suit is not based solely on petitioning activity as required by the anti-SLAPP cases.

Though the "solely" limitation is not found in the anti-SLAPP statute, the rule appropriately narrows the doctrine to its roots in protecting the right to petition.  Had the case proceeded in the Massachusetts anti-SLAPP process, the plaintiff would have been afforded an opportunity in rebuttal, also, to articulate a purpose apart from chilling the right to petition.  As the Appeals Court observed, "The Supreme Judicial Court has construed the statute several times, and has provided a framework, which has evolved over time, for analyzing whether an anti-SLAPP motion to dismiss should be allowed."

The case is Haverhill Stem LLC v. Jennings, No. 20-P-537 (Mass. App. Ct. May 26, 2021).  Justice John Englander authored the opinion for a unanimous panel that also comprised Chief Justice Green and Justice Kinder.

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Media want anti-SLAPP security while ignoring real harm, and nobody wants to talk about tort dysfunction

Christian Dorn from Pixabay
On April 7, one of my favorite podcasts, WNYC's On The Media (OTM), ran a story, not its first, on anti-SLAPP laws: statutes in the states (not yet federal) designed to combat "strategic lawsuits against public participation."

I've written about anti-SLAPP many times.  I'm not a fan of the statutes.  The OTM piece is good and important, but it tells only one side of the anti-SLAPP story.  That's a common, and forgivable, shortcoming in mass media coverage of itself.

Why I Care, and You Should Too

I've been a media advocate since I was hooked by my first high school journalism class in the 1980s (hat tip at Mrs. McConnell).  I've been a media defense lawyer and a defamation plaintiff, besides a classroom teacher of media law and the First Amendment.  My hang-up is justice, or the remediation of injustice (yes, I'm a J), and there's plenty of both in the way our news media work in the shadow cast by the shield of the First Amendment.  Advocating for the devil in my classroom, I was a critic of the Sullivan/Gertz actual malice standard decades before it became fashionable, or even socially acceptable in academic circles, to question the supposed sine qua non of free speech.

So when the media defense bar teamed up with state legislators to start piling on anti-SLAPP statutes as another death-blow weapon in the scorched-earth media defense arsenal in the late 1990s, I was skeptical from the get-go.  Upon the siren song of free speech absolutism, now decades on, Americans have fallen into the lazy habit of denying access to our courts to would-be plaintiffs who are genuinely victimized.  As a scholarly observer of tort law, I can tell you, bad things happen when people are systematically disenfranchised from justice.  What's worse, as empirical research has consistently told us for decades, and I confirm from my own experience, the ordinary defamation plaintiff is not the money-grubbing opportunist that tort reformers (or distorters) wish us to imagine; rather, what a defamation plaintiff usually wants, first and foremost, is the truth.  News media defendants might remember the truth from journalism school.

How did we get to a point that when a plaintiff and defendant want the same thing, it's still a zero-sum game?  If with the best of intentions, the U.S. Supreme Court in the civil rights era so distorted the state landscape of defamation law that media defendants lost all interest in compromise, even if the simple compromise is to correct the record and speak the truth.  Sullivan biographer Anthony Lewis recognized this problem in the penultimate chapter of his otherwise-paean to the case in 1992.  And this is why the 1993 Uniform Correction or Clarification of Defamation Act proved a profound failure.  The uniform law proposed using a First Amendment-compliant carrot rather than a constitutionally prohibited stick to coax media defendants to hear complainants out before facing off in court.  But, media defendants implicitly pleaded in response, why should we listen when we always win?

Anti-SLAPP laws are perfect for the thing they're perfect for: To shut down an obvious attempt to abuse the legal process with a sham claim when the plaintiff's true motivation is to harass or silence a defendant engaged in constitutionally protected speech or petitioning, especially when it's whistle-blowing.  "I know it when I see it" is why a South African judge recently allowed anti-SLAPP as an "abuse of process" defense even in the absence of a statute, shutting down a mining company's implausible suit against environmentalists.  Meanwhile, the American anti-SLAPP statute, the darling offspring of mass media corporate conglomerates and financially beholden legislators, tears through court dockets with no regard for the balance of power between the parties.

As a result, sometimes, like the infinite monkey who stumbles onto Hamlet, anti-SLAPP works.  Other times, David is summarily shut out of court at the behest of Goliath.  The dirty secret of the media defense bar is that it's pulling for the latter scenario more often than the former, because Davids pose a much greater threat to the corporate bottom line than the occasional, over-hyped monkey.

Squirrel!  SLAPPs Aren't the Problem

SLAPP suits only work because of a bigger dysfunction in tort law:  Transaction costs are way too high.  Lawyers and litigation cost too much.  (Law school costs too much, but that's another rabbit hole.)  Our civil dispute resolution system, in contrast with those of other countries, so prizes precision as to draw out civil proceedings to absurd expectations of time, energy, heartache, and money.  Too often, at the end of a litigation, both exhausted parties are net losers, and only the lawyers, on both sides, come out ahead.  The tort system is supposed to engender social norms and deter anti-social conduct through its compensation awards, not its overhead costs.  We've so contorted torts, especially when accounting for suits that are never brought, that the norm-setting and deterrent effects of transaction costs dwarf the impact of outcomes.

Anti-SLAPP tries to solve the problem of runaway transaction costs by summarily dismissing claims on the merits when a plaintiff cannot prove the case at the time of filing, usually without the benefit of discovery.  The game is rigged, because the evidence the plaintiff needs is in the possession of the defense.  So plaintiff's unlikely path to proof, already mined with common law and constitutional obstacles to press the scale down on the defense side, is well obliterated by anti-SLAPP. We could use this "solution" of summary dismissal across the board to cut back on tort litigation.  But people wouldn't stand for it in conventional personal injury, because then we'd be overrun with uncompensated and visibly afflicted plaintiffs, and the injustice would be undeniable.

If we dared have the creativity to experiment with more effective dispute resolution mechanisms as alternatives to tort litigation, we might best start with defamation cases, in which we know what plaintiffs want, and it's not money.  Yet here we are, hamstrung by the Supreme Court, disenfranchised by defense lobbyists, and forced to swallow the dangerous myth that we can have free speech only if we stand aside and let mass media deliver misinformation with impunity.

The Case of the Charity Exposé
and the Lamentations of the Media Defense Bar

In the April segment, OTM host and media veteran Bob Garfield interviewed Victoria Baranetsky, general counsel for the 501(c)(3) nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR), about a lawsuit by also-501(c)(3) nonprofit Planet Aid against CIR.  The lawsuit arose from a 2016 series on the CIR Reveal platform, in which CIR alleged abuse of charitable status by the organization through, inter alia, improper diversion of donor funds.  A California federal judge dismissed the 2018 complaint in March 2021, and Planet Aid, which is appealing, and CIR have very different takes on what that dismissal meant.  Planet Aid emphasizes "46 statements" in the reporting that the court found false, notwithstanding anti-SLAPP dismissal, while CIR emphasizes "several million dollars" of legal costs, "vastly exceed[ing] ... insurance coverage" and impossible to pay without pro bono aid.

CIR is not an outfit that publishes without doing its homework.  So without opining on the merits of the lawsuit, I admit, my gut allegiance in the case tends to CIR.  And I think it's OK that OTM interviewed only Baranetsky.  "Balance" as a journalistic value too often feeds the "talking heads" phenomenon we know from the disintegration of television broadcast journalism.  OTM's report was about the toll of litigation on journalism, not the merits of the CIR stories.  Looking, then, at the OTM story, I find that a side was missing, but it wasn't Planet Aid's.  Missing is reasoned resistance to the anti-SLAPP craze.  Here, then, are my reflections on five media lamentations in the OTM story about anti-SLAPP.

Lamentation Over Forum Shopping

(1) Baranetsky lamented that Planet Aid was permitted to sue in Maryland, where the law was advantageous to a plaintiff, and CIR was forced to incur major costs to move the case to California, where anti-SLAPP law is more protective.  Federal anti-SLAPP would fix this problem.

Forum shopping is a problem, but not specially a media defense problem.  Barring defamation victims from redress equally across the states isn't better than barring them one state at a time; i.e., 50 wrongs don't make a right.  Rather, everything that's wrong with anti-SLAPP would be multiplied by a federal statute.  Plaintiff's choice of forum does aggravate costs, and that allows forum shopping to be used improperly as a SLAPP tool.  The answer is to change how we manage forum selection in federal civil procedure to stop the externalization of costs to defendants and to compel professionalism in the plaintiffs' bar—not to put a thumb on the scale of merits in lawsuits, even SLAPPs.

Moreover, in overriding state court discretion to hear defamation actions on the merits, a federal anti-SLAPP statute would double down on the entrenched Sullivan/Gertz paralysis of the tort system that's precluding the development of innovative alternatives.  Our problem in defamation law is not lack of uniformity in the states, but precisely the opposite, lack of diversity that would generate new approaches.

Lamentation Over the Burdens of Discovery

(2) Baranetsky lamented that California federal courts have allowed limited discovery before dismissing cases under California anti-SLAPP law, thereby upping the costs of money and time for media defendants and mitigating the efficacy of anti-SLAPP. 

Notwithstanding the present debate in the Courts of Appeal over whether state anti-SLAPP laws can displace federal court process, anti-SLAPP puts defamation plaintiffs in a no-win scenario, especially when the plaintiff is a public figure.  Under Sullivan/Gertz, a public-figure plaintiff can prevail only by proving subjective knowledge or intent on the part of the defendant to publish falsity.  Subjective culpability lies only in the mind of the defendant.  Without precogs, we prove subjective culpability with circumstantial evidence.  When the defendant is a mass media organization, that evidence is in the possession of the defendant.  Even in a negligence case with a private-figure plaintiff, it is impossible to probe the culpability of the defendant when the plaintiff has no knowledge of the defendant's internal process, even the identity of a staff editorial writer, for example.

Yet along comes anti-SLAPP to demand (in the usual formulation) that a plaintiff prove likelihood of success on the merits with evidence that the plaintiff could not possibly possess.  Win-win for the media defense, lose-lose for access to justice.  Baranetsky bemoaned the costs, tangible and intangible, of discovery, especially on a nonprofit media outlet.  With that complaint, I am sympathetic.  Again, though, the answer is to change the process to control transaction costs.  The long reach of American discovery is globally infamous and socially problematic in ways well beyond the woes of media defendants.

Baranetsky raised the further point that the permitted discovery was one-sided, so CIR was not able to use discovery to bolster what might be a winning affirmative defense, such as truth.  I take this point, too.  I have some concern about the potential for a media organization—imagine not CIR, but a more partisan and unscrupulous outfit—to misuse discovery to further ill intentions.  But courts can and should control the scope of discovery with appropriate protective orders.   

Lamentation Over Interment by Paper

(3) Baranetsky lamented that the Planet Aid "complaint was about 66 pages, almost 70 pages long.... [B]ecause our reporters did such extensive reporting, published on the radio, published online, there were a lot of remarks to pull in from a really substantive investigation. The complaint here was padded with all of those bells and whistles."  That again upped media defense costs and slowed down the anti-SLAPP process.  

I don't doubt that the complaint was longer than it needed to be.  Plaintiffs anticipating high-profile litigation—by the way, including agenda-seeking litigators from both left and right, as well as state attorneys general—routinely plead "to the media" and to "the court of public opinion," rather than to the court of law.  Excessive pleading runs up defense costs, as well as court time, which is not fair to litigants or taxpayers.  Again, the answer lies in bar and bench control of process and professionalism, not in summary dismissal on the merits.

More importantly, to some extent, a defamation plaintiff's claim in a case over a series of reports must be lengthy, for a very reason Baranetsky said, and not because the plaintiff wants it that way.  It's not "padding," "bells," or "whistles."  Defamation plaintiffs are compelled by rules of pleading to commit a perverse self-injury by republishing the defamation of which they complain.  Thereafter, mass media entities are permitted to restate the defamation as a fair report of a public record, almost with impunity.  As a result, often, the defamation is amplified, and the plaintiff's suffering is vastly compounded.  Even if the plaintiff wins the case, compensation for this added injury is disallowed, and no media entity can ever be compelled to correct or update the record by reporting that the plaintiff later prevailed upon proof of falsity.

In my own plaintiff's case, precisely this happened.  Among countless national outlets, The New York Times reported the defamatory allegations I republished in the complaint, but never covered the case again, despite my entreaties to the reporter and ombudsperson.  To this day, I overhear innuendo based on the Times story with no reference to my later exoneration, which was reported in only one excellent-but-niche publication.  In my experience with would-be defamation plaintiffs, I have seen that this risk alone prevents a victim from seeking redress as often as not.  Once again, we could answer this problem by reforming pleading in defamation, rethinking what "fair report" means in the digital age, and experimenting with dispute resolution, if only Sullivan/Gertz left the defense bar with the slightest incentive to participate.

Lamentation Over Litigiousness

(4) In his introduction to the case, Garfield said, "Without offering evidence to rebut the allegations, the charity promptly sued the news organization for libel."

OTM itself walked back this characterization of Planet Aid's lawsuit as a blindside attack.  An OTM editor's note to the story posted online added that, according to a PR firm representing Planet Aid, the organization "reached out to [CIR] prior to filing its lawsuit asking for a retraction and correction."

I don't know whether Planet Aid's version is right, or OTM's, or maybe the demand letter got lost in the mail.  As I've indicated, I'm not rushing to sign up Planet Aid as my poster child for the Anti-SLAPP Resistance.  But OTM's post hoc characterization of events is, to my experience, typical of media-defense-bar spin.  In reality, rare in the extreme is the case that there is not at least a demand letter and response.

In my own plaintiff's case, I filed suit as late as possible, on the eve of the expiration of the statute of limitations.  I sought to diffuse the disagreement through every possible avenue, both vis-à-vis my defendants and through negotiation with a third party.  Yet when my case turned up years later in a book by an academic colleague, Amy Gajda, she used my case to support the book's thesis that alternative dispute resolution mechanisms on university campuses would help to avert lawsuits by litigious academic plaintiffs like me.  I don't dispute (or support) that thesis in the abstract, but my case did not support it.  Gajda suggested that I rushed to sue, without probing alternatives, which was utterly false.  In fact, it was the refusal of my potential defendants to come to the table—the very problem of Sullivan/Gertz inhibition of dispute resolution—that forced me into a lawsuit as an undesired last resort.

Gajda, by the way, is herself an award-winning journalist and scholar of media law.  Yet she readily contorted the procedural facts of my case to fit her expectations without ever asking me what happened.  We know each other, and I'm not hard to find.  If a top-flight journalist can be so sloppy with the facts in a case about a professional colleague, and I have to lump it, what chance does a lay soul in private life have to correct the record on something that really matters, as against a professional media outlet with a partisan agenda and lawyers on retainer?

How simple it is to make assumptions and feed the tort reformer's myth that greedy plaintiffs eagerly sue at the drop of a hat.  Yet no one properly counseled by an experienced attorney chooses a lawsuit as a first course of redress.  To the contrary, defamation victims, especially in matters as difficult to win as media torts, typically cannot find an attorney willing to take the case at the opportunity cost of sure-thing personal-injury money, and certainly not on contingency.  Plaintiffs wind up not suing for that or many other reasons unrelated to their real losses.  Other reasons include the risk, under anti-SLAPP fee-shifting, of having to pay attorneys' fees to a corporate media defendant's high-priced lawyers—not because the plaintiff wasn't defamed, but because the plaintiff could not meet the enhanced burdens to overcome a First Amendment defense.  Other reasons also include the stigma associated with being a plaintiff in America, a stigma perpetrated by corporate advocates of tort reform and conveniently perpetuated by would-rather-not-be defendants in the media business.

Lamentation Over the Price of Free Speech

(5) Baranetsky opined, "We have to be wary of defamation law being used by public figures and politicians and wielded in ways that can be used retributively. At the same time, make sure that lies aren't being spread.  The hope is that anti-SLAPP laws are really, they're the precise scalpel that's supposed to sharply and acutely figure out which falls on which side of the line."

That's a profound misapprehension of anti-SLAPP laws.  There is nothing about anti-SLAPP that is precise or acute.  Very much to the contrary, anti-SLAPP is designed to be a blunt instrument that stomps out litigation before it can get started, looking scarcely at the quantum of evidence on the merits and rounding down in favor of the defense.  Anti-SLAPP operates upon the very theory of Sullivan/Gertz, which is that the price of free speech is the prophylactic annulment of meritorious claims and the tolerance of misinformation.  The theory of anti-SLAPP is that we don't want to know the truth, and would rather abide falsity, when the cost of disentangling truth and falsity is inconveniently excessive.

Baranetsky's take on anti-SLAPP is ironic in the extreme.  The Sullivan/Gertz constitutionalization of state tort law is based on the age-old argumentative hypothesis of moral philosophy that "the truth will out" in the marketplace of ideas, so the courts ought not intervene to abate falsity.  That proposition has been vigorously refuted by scholars as demonstrably erroneous.  And CIR's very motto, splashed on a home page banner, is: "The truth will not reveal itself."

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I've identified areas of tort law that need reform—abuse of forum selection, excessively broad discovery, permissiveness of fact pleading—and areas of defamation law in particular that need reform, procedural and substantive—pleading requirements, fair report protection, culpability and proof standards, plaintiff access to representation, and availability of alternative dispute resolution—but are paralyzed by federal capture of common law and media defense intransigence.

Let me not understate my appreciation for OTM, WNYC, CIR, and all kinds of nonprofit journalistic enterprises.  I am grateful that CIR did the reporting that it did on Planet Aid, and for the reporting that OTM does all the time on threats to public interest journalism.  I am fearful of a world in which that reporting does not happen.  

Nevertheless, I object to a legal standard that presumes news media have the corner market on truth.  If our system of civil dispute resolution is broken, and I think it is, then we need to fix it.  Anti-SLAPP is at best a patch to paper over unsightly symptoms of our dysfunction, and, too often, it does so at the expense of genuine victims.  Our willingness to ignore injury says more about the sorry state of our democratic character than does our blind fealty to an unbridled press.

At the annual meeting earlier this year of the Communications Law Forum of the American Bar Association, a famously media defense-identifying conference, I heard whispered for the first time some cautious and reluctant concern that media defendants holding all the cards in tort litigation might—wait, is this a secure channel?—might not necessarily be the best strategy to ensure the freedom of speech and to protect the flow of truthful information in America, especially in the digital age.

Now where have I heard that before?