Thursday, October 21, 2004
S.C. to Review Application of Anti-SLAPP Law to Counsel
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
The Supreme Court yesterday agreed to consider the extent to which an attorney who claims that he or she was sued for having exercised free speech or petition rights, in the context of a lawsuit, is protected by the anti-SLAPP statute.
The justices, at their weekly conference, voted to review a pair of related rulings by Div. Five of this district’s Court of Appeal, which ruled in favor of attorneys Herbert Hafif, Wiley Aitken, and Ronald C. Stock and their firms in suits brought by Peggy Soukup, a former employee of Hafif’s firm.
The disputes go back several years, and began with a suit by the Hafif firm against Soukup, claiming she had disclosed confidential information obtained during her employment, allegedly in furtherance of a conspiracy to defame the law firm.
The suit was dismissed as a strategic lawsuit against public participation, and the Fourth District Court of Appeal affirmed in an unpublished 2000 opinion.
Soukup then sued the Hafif firm, as well as Stock and other lawyers who had represented the firm in the underlying suit, for malicious prosecution. She claimed, among other things, that the suit was filed in order to induce her to withdraw a complaint she made to the U.S. Department of Labor.
Stock and the Hafif firm brought an anti-SLAPP motion, which was denied by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Gregory O’Brien as to Stock on the ground that the conduct protected by the statute did not include an attorney’s representation of a party in another lawsuit.
The Court of Appeal, however, in an opinion by Presiding Justice Paul A. Turner, said the motion should have been granted. Turner concluded that Stock was entitled to the protection of the statute because the action arose out of his “exercise of free expression rights on behalf of” the Hafif firm.
Turner cited an earlier case granting the protections of the statute to a lawyer sued for comments he made outside the courtroom to a journalist.
“No sound justification exists for limiting the availability of a section 425.16 special motion to strike to a lawyer speaking only outside of the courtroom to a journalist,” the presiding justice wrote. “This is particularly true because the First Amendment, subject to restrictions not present elsewhere, applies to advocacy conduct in and out of a courtroom. Because defendant demonstrated that the claims against him arose out of the exercise of his own First Amendment free expression rights, his conduct as an advocate while speaking and writing on behalf of the Hafifs and the Hafif firm, he has sustained his initial burden pursuant to [Code of Civil Procedure] section 425.16, subdivision (b)(1) when the statute is broadly construed.”
In an unpublished portion of the opinion, Turner concluded that Soukup failed to show a likelihood of prevailing on the merits.
In the companion case, in which Turner authored an unpublished opinion, the court held that anti-SLAPP motions by other lawyers for the Hafif firm, including Aitken, Greg Hafif, and Cynthia Hafif, should have been granted for the same reasons as in the Stock case.
The cases are Soukup v. Stock, 118 Cal.App.4th 1490, and Soukup v. Hafif, B152759.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company