Thursday, June 15, 2006
Defamation Action Over Critical E-Mail Ruled SLAPP
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A defamation action brought by a county hospital owner against the author of an email deriding the owner’s financial instability is a SLAPP suit, the Fourth District Court of Appeal ruled yesterday.
Reversing a ruling by Judge Geoffrey T. Glass, the panel unanimously directed the trial court to grant Michael Fitzgibbons’ motion to strike Integrated Healthcare Holding, Inc.’s defamation suit against him.
Integrated, owner of Western Medical Center, sued Fitzgibbons, a medical staff member, over a email in which he commented on Integrated’s financial problems.
Fitzgibbons sent the email to medical executive committee members two days after the Integrated’s loan default was publicly disclosed in a local newspaper report.
The email said that WMC appeared to be “underwater” and there was “[n]o way to get out,” and cited unfavorable facts such as a 20% drop in WMC’s admissions. Fitzibbons closed the email by remarking, “I guess Mr. Mogel won’t be pooring [sic] expensive brandy on the table today.”
Integrated’s 2005 complaint accused Fitzgibbons of defamation, intentional interference with a contractual relationship, negligent interference with a contractual relationship, breach of contract, and breach of the duty of good faith and fair dealing.
Integrated alleged that Fitzgibbons’ negative email was forwarded to Blue Cross/ Wellpoint, Inc., with whom it had been negotiating for higher insurance payments. The email caused to Blue Cross to stall negotiations, Integrated claimed, resulting in a delay that cost Integrated over $500,000.
Moreover, Integrated said that Fitzgibbons’ email breached its agreement between WMC that stipulated WMC’s medical staff would express public support for Integrated’s operation of the hospital.
Integrated contended that Fitzgibbons’ email failed to meet the public interest requirement for bringing an “anti-SLAPP” motion under Code of Civil Procedure Sec. 425.16, but the panel disagreed..
Writing for the court, Justice Richard A. Aronson of Div. Three said the panel had “little trouble” concluding that Fitzgibbons’s e-mail message concerned “a public issue” and “an issue of public interest” within the meaning of sec. 425.16. Integrated’s acquisition and operation of WMC was the subject of public hearings held by the California Senate and the Orange County Board of Supervisors, he noted, and was discussed in newspaper articles and other periodicals.
“The hearings and articles focused on [Integrated’s] financial ability to successfully operate the hospitals, and the potential harm to the public should [Integrated] fail. Fitzgibbons’s e-mail message expressing concern for [Integrated’s] financial health and its ability to operate WMC falls squarely within these issues,” he wrote.
Moreover, integrated failed to show it would prevail on the merits of its suit, because it did not provide evidence that Fitzgibbons’ e-mail statements regarding its financial situation were false. It also failed to show that it could prevail on its contract claim, because the obligation of WMC staff to “express public support” for Integrated was insufficient to constitute a waiver of Fitzgibbons’ First Amendment rights, Aronson said. Moreover, the justice wrote, there was no evidence that Fitzgibbons forwarded the e-mail to Blue Cross or intended to interfere with Integrated’s negotiations.
As for the remarks he made about Integrated’s executives, the justice said, “Although the statements in this portion of the message are undeniably derisive, they are not actionable defamation.”
The case is Integrated Healthcare Holdings, Inc. v. Fitzgibbons, 06 S.O.S. 3037.
Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company