Friday, April 23, 2004
Court of Appeal Rules Garment Retailer’s Suit Against Activists Should Have Been Dismissed as SLAPP
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A garment retailer’s lawsuit against a group of activists who claimed the company was responsible for the unpaid wages of workers who sewed garments sold under its label has been ordered dismissed is a strategic lawsuit against public participation.
Div. Seven of this district’s Court of Appeal ruled Wednesday that Fashion 21 failed to show it was likely to prevail on its claims of defamation and nuisance against the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Marilyn Hoffman erred by denying the coalition’s special motion to strike under the anti-SLAPP law, Justice Earl Johnson Jr. wrote for the panel.
The plaintiff is a company that sells women’s clothes nationwide under the label “Forever 21.” The garments are purchased in finished condition from manufacturers, many of whom subcontract the sewing work.
The coalition began picketing the Fashion 21 stores three years ago. It claimed that the company was responsible for the fact that 19 Los Angeles-based workers employed by the subcontractors had been denied minimum wage and overtime pay and subjected to sweatshop conditions.
Fashion 21 owed these workers “hundreds of thousands of dollars,” the coalition said in its campaign, which included picketing, press releases, and Web site articles asking members of the public to contact the company and urge it to accept responsibility for the plight of the workers.
The company alleged in its complaint that the coalition falsely accused it of employing the workers, when it knew all along that the company had no responsibility for the situation and owed the workers nothing. It also claimed the defendants had created a nuisance by distributing defamatory flyers in front of the company’s stores.
Fashion 21 conceded that it had the burden, under the anti-SLAPP law, of showing a probability of prevailing on its claims. It claimed that it had done so by showing that it had no legal responsibility for any failure of its manufacturers or their subcontractors to properly pay their employees.
Johnson, writing for the Court of Appeal, expressed skepticism at the plaintiff’s claim that it had been accused of an illegal, as opposed to an immoral act. But even if the coalition’s statements are construed as accusing the company of acting illegally, the justice concluded, Fashion 21 cannot prove the statements were false.
That is the case, the justice explained, because a 1999 law requires “garment manufacturers” to guarantee the wages of employees of their subcontractors, and the state attorney general and labor commissioner have both interpreted the statute to cover companies like Fashion 21 that purchase finished garments made to specifications.
Whether those interpretations are correct is irrelevant to the defamation issue, Johnson added.
“Even if an appellate court should overrule the Commissioner’s interpretation of the statute sometime in the future, at the time defendants distributed the flyer at issue in this case the Commissioner’s statutory interpretation would have been applied to any claim brought against Fashion 21 under the wage guaranty provisions,” Johnson wrote.
The case is Fashion 21 v. Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, 04 S.O.S. 2048.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company