Court of Appeal Upholds Anti-SLAPP Motion to Defeat Claims Against Government Agencies
Ruling Allows Government Agencies to Use the Motion to Quickly End Meritless and Vexatious Lawsuits
A government agency can employ an anti-SLAPP motion to win early termination of meritless and vexatious lawsuits brought to quash government action conducted in the “public interest,” the California Court of Appeal ruled last week. The court upheld the City of Eureka’s use of the anti-SLAPP (which stands for “strategic lawsuit against public participation”) motion finding that the case stemmed from the City’s protected code enforcement activities.
In Squires v. City of Eureka, a landlord sued the city, alleging 10 causes of action including harassment, intentional infliction of emotional distress, municipal liability and supervisor liability, as well as several federal equal protection claims. The landlord owned several properties with persistent code violations. Following prolonged efforts to address the problems through code enforcement, the City attempted to have a receiver appointed. Just prior to the City’s filing of the receivership petition, plaintiffs filed the lawsuit, alleging equal protection violations in addition to other causes of action. The City filed an anti-SLAPP motion, which the trial court granted as to seven of the 10 causes of action, allowing discovery on the three federal claims. Following that discovery, the City filed a renewed anti-SLAPP motion, which the trial court granted in an extensive and thorough order, concluding that plaintiffs had not shown a probability of prevailing on any of their remaining claims. The Court of Appeal affirmed that decision.
Courts evaluate the use of an anti-SLAPP motion by applying a two-step process: whether the defendant has made a threshold showing that the challenged cause of action is one arising from protected activity and whether the plaintiffs demonstrated a probability of prevailing on its claims. In Squires, the court and both parties agreed that the City’s activity was protected, since it involved code enforcement actions taken by the City. As such, the court focused on the second prong of the test, and determined that the plaintiffs did not establish that they were treated differently than other similarly situated individuals, as is required.
An anti-SLAPP motion to dismiss a case may be used by defendants early in litigation to end a SLAPP case and save the defendant from unnecessary costs and the burdens of litigation.
This case illustrates that the anti-SLAPP motion is a tool public agencies may use to obtain dismissal of meritless lawsuits before they become more costly diversions. Normally, the anti-SLAPP motion is brought by an individual defendant who is sued to “chill the valid exercise of the constitutional rights of freedom of speech and the petition for redress of grievances.” Such cases are normally a “David vs. Goliath” contest, where the defendant is an individual being sued by a well-heeled corporate plaintiff.