Thursday, January 27, 2005
Satellite TV Piracy Ruling Left Standing by State Supreme Court
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
The California Supreme Court yesterday let stand a ruling by this district’s Court of Appeal dismissing a suit against DIRECTV by individuals who claim they were subjected to extortion when the company threatened to sue them for misappropriating its signals.
Justices, at their weekly conference in San Francisco, voted 6-0 not to review the Oct. 29 ruling in Blanchard v. DirecTV, Inc. (2004) 123 Cal.App.4th 903. The Court of Appeal’s Div. Three, in an opinion by Justice Richard Aldrich, said the trial judge was correct in tossing the suit under the anti-SLAPP statute.
Chief Justice Ronald M. George was absent from the conference and did not participate.
Aldrich agreed with DIRECTV that the plaintiffs, described by the company as “hackers” and “pirates” for using specialized equipment to receive satellite service without paying for it, were not acting in the public interest by suing the company under the unfair competition law.
DIRECTV’s campaign against piracy has included obtaining writs of seizure authorizing authorities to seize and impound products and business records from makers and distributors of equipment used to unscramble its transmissions.
The seizure of those records has enabled the company to identify thousands of individuals who have purchased the equipment, who in turn have been sent letters threatening them with lawsuits unless they turn in the devices and pay compensation to DIRECTV for having used them. The letters cited various cases in which DIRECTV said it prevailed against other users of the devices.
In their complaint, the plaintiffs in the Los Angeles Superior Court action claim that the letters constitute defamation, violation of the civil right to be free from personal insult and defamation under Civil Code Sec. 52.1, and extortion and duress.
In its anti-SLAPP motion, DIRECTV argued that the suit infringed upon its constitutional right to petition for redress of grievances, and also asserted that it would probably prevail on the merits, since the letters’ contents were protected by the litigation privilege as set forth in Civil Code Sec. 47(b).
The plaintiffs responded that the suit was meritorious. They argued that not all of the devices were illegal, the records seized did not establish that the devices were being used illegally, that many of the letters were sent after the statute of limitations had run, and that DIRECTV had yet to prevail, other than by default judgment, in any of the lawsuits referenced in its letters.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Charles McCoy granted the anti-SLAPP motion, saying the company had a constitutional right to send the letters. The judge agreed with DIRECTV that the letters were absolutely privileged, finding that they were sent in good faith contemplation of litigation and noting that the company had, in fact, filed more than 600 lawsuits.
DIRECTV also was awarded more than $97,000 in attorney fees, an award the Court of Appeal said was not excessive.
On appeal, the plaintiffs argued that the amendment to the anti-SLAPP law enacted last year, prohibiting application of the statute to public interest lawsuits, applied. DIRECTV argued that even if this was a public-interest suit, the amendment could not be applied to a case that was already pending when it took effect.
In a footnote, Aldrich noted that the latter argument has been rejected in several Court of Appeal decisions, so that “it is now settled” that the amendment is applied retroactively.
But in this case, Aldrich wrote, a ruling in favor of the plaintiffs would not “enforce an important right affect the public interest,” nor could the plaintiffs show that “[p]rivate enforcement is necessary and places a disproportionate financial burden on the plaintiff in relation to the plaintiff’s stake in the matter,” both of which must be established under the terms of the statute.
“Because this lawsuit is not designed to confer a benefit upon anyone other than plaintiffs, it is only motivated by personal gain,” Aldrich wrote.
“We are unconvinced by plaintiffs’ portrayal of themselves as the public-interest David against the corporate Goliath,” the justice added.
Aldrich went on to agree with the trial judge that DIRECTV would probably prevail on the merits of the suit and had thus satisfied the requirements of the anti-SLAPP law.
In other action at yesterday’s conference, the justices denied a rehearing request by Danny Ray Horning, whose death sentence for the murder of Sammy McCullough, a marijuana dealer and fish farmer who lived in a geodesic dome house in a rural area of Stockton was unanimously affirmed Dec. 16.
Horning’s counsel had argued that a delay of more than two years in seeking extradition while Horning was incarcerated in Arizona on other charges violated his right to a speedy trial, but the court held that the delay was not excessive, especially since it was caused in part by Horning’s escape from Arizona custody and Horning—who drew a life sentence in the neighboring state—could not show prejudice.
The high court also let stand an unpublished ruling of this district’s Div. Eight, which agreed with the trial court that the City of Los Angeles could not be held responsible for alleged exposure to toxic emissions from the city’s Sheldon-Arleta Landfill in Sun Valley.
The family of Gerald Cord, who coached for many years at Francis Polytechnic High School, claimed that Cord’s death from cancer in 2000, after a career of more than 30 years at the school, was a result the emissions. But the Court of Appeal held that there was insufficient evidence of causation to create a triable issue, and upheld Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Edward Simpson’s grant of summary judgment.
Copyright 2005, Metropolitan News Company