Friday, August 2, 2002
Denial of Anti-SLAPP Motion Held Bar to Later Malicious Prosecution Suit
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A defendant who moves to strike a suit under the anti-SLAPP law and loses on the merits cannot later sue for malicious prosecution, because the denial of the motion establishes probable cause for the underlying action, the state Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
In a unanimous decision, the justices agreed with the Fourth District Court of Appeal and upheld the dismissal of a suit against the Orange County law firm of Parker, Covert & Chidester, the Los Angeles firm of Reich, Adell, Crost & Cvitan, and clients of those firms.
Members of the Mexican Political Association brought suit three years ago, claiming the attorneys had tried to silence them in retaliation for public protests that took place in 1996. The protestors claimed that female middle school students of Mexican descent had been sexually harassed by one of the teachers, and that Latino students were disciplined unfairly, allegations later rejected by the U.S. Office of Education after investigation.
The accused teacher, along with two other teachers and three administrators, sought an injunction against alleged harassment by the MPA, as well as damages. Riverside Superior Court Judge Victor Miceli issued an order barring MPA members from coming within 100 feet of the Vista Heights school without an appointment while school was in session, or from using a bullhorn within 500 feet of campus during school hours.
The Court of Appeal ruled in May 1998 that the injunction was improperly issued because the judge deprived most of the defendants of an opportunity to fully testify. The injunction had already expired, and the claims for injunctive relief were dismissed on remand from the Court of Appeal.
An anti-SLAPP motion was denied, but the Court of Appeal ruled on petition for writ of mandate that it should have been granted, leading to dismissal of the damage claims and the filing of the malicious prosecution suit against the two law firms.
Riverside Superior Court Commissioner Joan Ettinger ruled that although reversed by the Court of Appeal, the denial of the anti-SLAPP motion and the granting of the injunction established a conclusive presumption of probable cause.
The commissioner was correct as to the effect of the anti-SLAPP ruling, Justice Kathryn M. Werdegar wrote yesterday for the high court.
It has long been the law, in California and elsewhere, “that a trial court judgment or verdict in favor of the plaintiff or prosecutor in the underlying case, unless obtained by means of fraud or perjury, establishes probable cause to bring the underlying action, even though the judgment or verdict is overturned on appeal or by later ruling of the trial court,” Werdegar wrote.
The rule, she explained, is rooted in the public policy disfavoring malicious prosecution suits.
Such suits should be allowed only when “a reasonable litigant or attorney would have seen [the underlying action] as lacking all merit,” she wrote. Thus, if a claim is strong enough to prevail in the trial court, it cannot be deemed frivolous and probable cause is established, even if the appeals court views it differently, the justice said.
“The same considerations lead us to conclude that a trial court’s denial of a motion to strike under [Code of Civil Procedure] section 425.16, on the ground that the plaintiff has established the requisite probability of success, establishes probable cause to bring the action, and precludes the maintenance of a subsequent malicious prosecution action, unless the prior ruling is shown to have been obtained by fraud or perjury,” Werdegar wrote.
The case was argued before the high court by Los Angeles sole practitioner Yvonne M. Renfrew for the plaintiffs and by Paul Crost of Reich, Adell, Crost & Cvitan and David D. Werner of Riverside’s Stream & Stream for the defendants. The California School Boards Association and Amoco Corporation filed amicus briefs on behalf of the defendants.
The case is Wilson v. Parker, Covert & Chidester, 02 S.O.S. 3996.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company