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Statements during official proceedings covered by anti-SLAPP law

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Statements during official proceedings covered by anti-SLAPP law 02/22/99

Statements during official proceedings covered by anti-SLAPP law

02/22/99

CALIFORNIA–In a case involving a landlord’s claim that a tenants’ rights group had defamed him, the state Supreme Court in San Francisco held in late January that California’s anti-SLAPP statute — which permits courts to dismiss defamation lawsuits arising from speech made “in connection with a public issue” — does not require a separate showing that the speech was made in connection with a “public issue” if it was made during an “official proceeding.”

A SLAPP suit, or “strategic lawsuit against public participation,” is a lawsuit designed to discourage individuals from speaking out on controversial issues. The state anti-SLAPP statute allows such defendants to ask courts to strike down those suits, unless the court determines the “plaintiff has established that there is a probability that the plaintiff will prevail on the claim.”

A 5-2 majority concluded that because the anti-SLAPP statute defines statements made “in connection with a public issue” as including statements “made before a legislative, executive or judicial proceeding, or any other official proceeding authorized by law,” statements made in connection with an official proceeding are, by statutory definition, made in connection with a public issue.

The court further concluded that because the statements at issue were made with regard to disputes between a landlord, tenants, and an advocacy group for tenants’ rights in civil court proceedings and hearings before the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, they were made in connection with official proceedings.

The case before the state Supreme Court involved Dan and Judy Briggs, who are owners of residential rental properties, and an organization called the Eden Council for Hope and Opportunity (ECHO). ECHO is a nonprofit corporation that counsels tenants and mediates disputes between landlords and tenants.

In 1990, ECHO began counseling multiple tenants who lived in properties owned by the Briggs, who subsequently sued ECHO for emotional distress and defamation and alleged that ECHO employees had referred to Dan Briggs as a racist when dealing with tenants and HUD investigators.

ECHO asked the Oakland trial judge before whom the Briggs filed their claim to strike the lawsuit under the California anti-SLAPP statute. The trial judge did so, but a mid-level appellate court in San Francisco reversed the dismissal, finding that the statements did not address an issue of public significance.

The state Supreme Court held that the reasoning of the intermediate appellate court reflected a “strained construction” of the statute that would “serve Californians poorly.”

The court also noted the trial court impliedly had found that the Briggs failed to establish a probability of prevailing on their claim and did not challenge that finding.

Two dissenting justices argued that the majority had read the statute too broadly, finding defendants should be required to show that their statements concerned a matter of public significance. (Briggs v. Eden Council for Hope and Opportunity; Counsel for ECHO: Mark Goldowitz, Oakland)