Monday, March 8, 2004
C. A. Upholds Sanctions Against Conservative Group For Bringing Frivolous Anti-SLAPP Motion
By a MetNews Staff Writer
An order requiring a conservative legal organization to pay $60,000 in sanctions for filing a frivolous anti-SLAPP motion on behalf of an abortion opponent sued for trespass and nuisance by a Planned Parenthood affiliate has been upheld by the Fourth District Court of Appeal.
Justice Patricia Benke, in an unpublished opinion for Div. One, said the United States Justice Foundation knew that its client had trespassed at the Planned Parenthood San Diego facility and that no reasonable attorney possessing such knowledge would have filed an anti-SLAPP motion.
The client, Cheryl Sullenger, was photographed in the driveway of the facility. Planned Parenthood obtained a preliminary injunction limiting Sullenger’s right to picket the facility after presenting evidence in the form of the photographs and a security officer’s testimony that Sullenger had blocked a car from exiting the driveway.
Sometime after the injunction was granted, USJF filed its anti-SLAPP motion on Sullenger’s behalf. The motion, signed by then-USJF attorney William Gillespie, was accompanied by a declaration from Sullenger, who denied ever having trespassed.
San Diego Superior Court Judge Kevin Enright denied the motion as untimely and said that he would have denied it on the merits as well. But because it was untimely, Enright said, he could not award sanctions.
The Court of Appeal reversed in an unpublished opinion. On remand, Enright concluded the motion was frivolous and awarded sanctions against USJF but not against Sullenger, whom the judge said was acting on the group’s advice. Planned Parenthood and Sullenger later settled their dispute.
Benke, writing for the Court of Appeal, said Thursday Enright did not abuse his discretion.
The substance of the motion, the justice reasoned, had already been rejected when the preliminary injunction was granted. “In this context, USJF’s participation in filing a declaration which any reasonable attorney would have known had already been conclusively impeached is clearly sanctionable,” the justice said, saying the motion appears to have been brought solely to delay discovery.
Benke went on to say that USJF is not relieved of its liability for sanctions by the fact that Gillespie no longer works for the organization. USJF’s status, the jurist wrote, is the same as that of a law firm, “and it is responsible for the pleadings and papers filed in its name.”
She added that “the fact that USJF is a nonprofit organization involved in defending the right of citizens to express themselves does not diminish its duty to insure that its attorneys do so in a lawful manner.”
The case is Wilkerson v. United States Justice Foundation, D041009.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company