The California Supreme Court ruled Monday that an exemption to the state’s anti-SLAPP statute that allows plaintiffs to avoid dismissal must be interpreted narrowly.
Reversing part of a lower appellate court’s decision in Club Members for an Honest Election v. Sierra Club, Justice Carol Corrigan wrote that to qualify under the exemption, a plaintiff’s lawsuit must be brought solely in the public interest. A claim in which personal interests exist in tandem with a public concern does not suffice.
At issue in the case was a hotly contested 2004 election for seats on the board of the Sierra Club. According to court documents, Robert van de Hoek ran for a spot and felt targeted by efforts among incumbent board members to ban "outside groups" from participating in the election. Faced with losing the race, van de Hoek and his backers in the Club Members for an Honest Election filed suit against the Sierra Club, challenging the election under a Corporations Code and claiming breach of fiduciary duty, among other things.
The Sierra Club relied on the state anti-SLAPP statute in its efforts to have portions of the suit dismissed, and filed for summary judgment. The trial court largely sided with the Sierra Club and the suit was dismissed.
The CMHE and the Sierra Club each appealed portions of the anti-SLAPP rulings.
The state’s 16-year-old anti-SLAPP law allows for the quick dismissal of baseless lawsuits that aim to silence free speech on a matter of public interest. SLAPP is an acronym for ‘strategic lawsuit against public participation."
California lawmakers carved out the exemption at issue in this case in 2003, attempting to safeguard lawsuits in which the plaintiff seeks "solely" to protect the public good and to "enforce an important right affecting the public interest."
The Court of Appeal found that the exemption applied in Club Members because just such an interest was at stake, even though personal interests were also asserted. On review, Corrigan wrote that the appellate court had "failed to adhere to the plain meaning" of the exemption — namely, by ignoring the word "solely."
In the Club Members case, Corrigan wrote, the plaintiffs wanted among other things to have certain people installed onto the Sierra Club board, thus placing their suit beyond the scope of an exemption that covers claims pursued only in the public interest.