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VIP Pet Grooming Studio, Inc. v. Sproule

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  1. Libel and Privacy

Court: Supreme Court of the State of New York, Appellate Division — Second Department

Date Filed: Oct. 25, 2021

Background: In May 2020, Robert Sproule posted reviews on Yelp and Google cautioning consumers from taking their animals to VIP Pet Grooming Studio, Inc. after his family’s dog died following a visit to the groomer. A few months later, VIP sued Sproule and his wife for defamation.

On Nov. 10, 2020, about a week after VIP filed its lawsuit, New York amended its anti-SLAPP law, one of many state laws that are intended to prevent people from using the threats of frivolous lawsuits to intimidate people who are exercising their First Amendment rights. The amended law makes it easier for the targets of SLAPP lawsuits to win the quick dismissal of such lawsuits in court. More specifically, the revised law expanded its speech protections to cover “any communication in a place open to the public or a public forum in connection with an issue of public interest.”

The Sproules moved to dismiss the defamation case, arguing that the amended anti-SLAPP law barred it. The trial court denied that motion, and the Sproules appealed.

Our Position: New York appellate court should reverse and remand the trial court’s decision, and dismiss the defamation case against the Sproules.

  • The amendments to New York’s anti-SLAPP law apply retroactively.
  • The amended anti-SLAPP law defines “issues of public interest” in a broad, speech-protective manner, covering the Sproules’ reviews.
  • The trial court’s approach threatens to deny anti-SLAPP protection to consumer reviews, journalism, and other sources of information.

The Reporters Committee and a coalition of 10 media organizations were represented in this friend-of-the-court brief by attorneys for Davis Wright Tremaine LLP.

Quote: “The notion that the amended anti-SLAPP law can only protect debates that are already in the public eye, or that have impacted a large number of people, has no basis in law and would chill speech on many topics that would otherwise be brought to light by journalists, advocates, or other members of the public.”

Related: The Reporters Committee recently filed a friend-of-the-court brief in a case concerning New York’s amended anti-SLAPP law. In that case, Coleman v. Grand, Reporters Committee attorneys argued that provisions of the updated law should apply in federal court.

Update: On Jan. 17, 2024, the New York appellate court affirmed the trial court’s order denying the family’s motion to dismiss the defamation complaint. The court concluded that the 2020 amendments to New York’s anti-SLAPP law do not apply retroactively. “Had the Legislature intended for the 2020 amendments to the anti-SLAPP statute to be applied retroactively, it could have said so,” the court’s opinion states. In Gottwald v. Sebert — another case involving the state’s anti-SLAPP statute in which the Reporters Committee, represented by attorneys from the UCLA School of Law First Amendment Clinic and Holwell Shuster & Goldberg LLP, filed friend-of-the-court briefs — the New York Court of Appeals ruled in June 2023 that the amended anti-SLAPP law was not broadly retroactive, but could apply to lawsuits that began or continued after the effective date of the amendment.

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