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New defamation trial ordered on denial of anti-SLAPP motion

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  1. Libel and Privacy

    News Media Update         CALIFORNIA         Libel         March 9, 2005    

New defamation trial ordered on denial of anti-SLAPP motion

  • A libel lawsuit involving two ex-employees who posted comments online about former co-workers should have been stopped pending an appeal of a motion to throw it out of court, the state’s high court ruled.

March 9, 2005 — A dispute over whether a California defamation lawsuit was designed to silence the lawsuit’s defendants should have been resolved before the case moved forward, the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

The 6-1 ruling is a victory for supporters of the California anti-SLAPP law, which is meant to protect against “strategic lawsuits against public participation” – lawsuits filed by parties with the intent of quieting a critic.

The lawsuit stemmed from incidents in 1998 when ex-Varian Associates employees Michelangelo Delfino and Mary Day posted derogatory comments online about two former co-workers, George Zdasiuk and Susan Felch. Felch and Zdasiuk sued Day and Delfino for libel, resulting in a 2002 Santa Clara County court ruling ordering Delfino and Day to pay $725,000 in compensatory and punitive damages.

Prior to the trial court’s ruling, Day and Delfino filed anti-SLAPP motions in 2000 arguing that state law prevented Felch and Zdasiuk from trying to silence them with their lawsuit. The court denied Day and Delfino’s motions on the grounds that they were untimely, that Felch and Zdasiuk’s actions were not to made to restrain Day and Delfino’s speech, and that Felch and Zdasiuk were able to show the court they would most likely win their case.

Day and Delfino appealed the denial of the anti-SLAPP motion and the trial court pushed forward under the presumption that the anti-SLAPP appeal would not affect the outcome of the trial. The Court of Appeals upheld the denial.

Thursday’s ruling, written by Justice Janice Rogers Brown, voided the trial court’s ruling based partly on what legislators intended when they wrote the state law. The “Legislature confirmed its intent that an appeal from the denial of an anti-SLAPP motion . . . automatically stays further trial court proceedings on the merits,” Brown wrote.

The Supreme Court also ruled that the trial court had no jurisdiction over the merits of the case because of the pending appeal of the anti-SLAPP motion.

Chief Justice Ronald M. George dissented, in part, from the majority, agreeing that the anti-SLAPP issue should have been resolved before the trial. But he ruled that such a resolution would not have changed the outcome of the trial. “All that will be accomplished by a reversal is the wasting of considerable time, effort, and resources,” he wrote.

Day and Delfino refuse to stop writing about their issues with their former employer and colleagues. “We’ll post until we’re dead,” they say on one Web page.

(Varian Medical Systems Inc. v Delfino, Jon B. Eisenberg and Jeremy B. Rosen, Encino, Calif.)AB

© 2005 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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