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D.C. anti-SLAPP law does not apply in federal court

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  1. Libel and Privacy
The special motion to strike provided by D.C.'s anti-SLAPP law, which became effective in March of last year, is unavailable…

The special motion to strike provided by D.C.'s anti-SLAPP law, which became effective in March of last year, is unavailable to defendants sued in federal court, the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. ruled last week.

The case is between 3M, the multinational corporation, and Lanny Davis, a prominent Washington attorney and former advisor to President Clinton. The corporation has alleged that Davis engaged in a "defamatory media blitz" against 3M in the wake of a business dispute between the company and the manufacturer of a medical product used to test for antibiotic resistant bacterial infections, according to the opinion. The case was brought in federal court, and Davis filed a special motion to strike the complaint against him in December.

The court's opinion, which addressed a number of claims in addition to Davis's special motion to strike under the anti-SLAPP law, will allow 3M's defamation action against Davis to go forward.

“We respect the judge’s decision, but believe that the D.C. Anti-SLAPP Act’s protection of the rights of free speech and petitioning the government provides defendants with an important immunity from suit defense that applies in federal as well as state court,” said Raymond Mullady, Jr., who represents Davis in the case.

The court's analysis turned on the relationship between the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and the D.C. anti-SLAPP law. Federal courts generally hear two kinds of cases, those that "arise under" the constitution or federal law — so-called "federal question" cases — and those between citizens of different states, under what is known as diversity jurisdiction. Diversity cases involve claims under state law, but take place in federal court.

In diversity cases, courts must decide whether federal law or state law governs each aspect of the case. The court addressed whether the anti-SLAPP law would apply in a diversity case in D.C. federal court.

When there is a perceived conflict between a Federal Rule of Civil Procedure and a state law, courts must first determine whether the federal rule "answers the question in dispute," the court wrote. If the federal rule answers the question, then it trumps the state rule unless it is invalid.

The court examined federal rules 12 and 56, which provide for motions to dismiss and for summary judgment, respectively, to determine whether they answered the question "whether this Court may dismiss 3M's claims with prejudice on a preliminary basis based on the pleadings or on matters outside the pleadings merely because 3M has not 'demonstrate[d] that the claim is likely to succeed on the merits."

Finding that the federal rules "do not permit a district court to dismiss a complaint that is sufficiently pled with detailed and plausible factual allegations" simply because, based on its own evaluation, the court does not believe the claim is likely to succeed on the merits, the court ruled that the rules conflicted with the anti-SLAPP law, and therefore the rules governed.