Thursday, February 14, 2008
Court Strikes Malicious Prosecution Complaint Against Mehrban
By STEVEN M. ELLIS, Staff Writer
A company that accused a man and his attorney of attempting to extort money from it under state anti-discrimination laws cannot proceed in its malicious prosecution against the pair, the Fifth District Court of Appeals ruled yesterday.
Reversing the decision of Kern Superior Court Judge Louis P. Etcheverry, the court, in an unpublished opinion, ruled that Chase Inc. could not show a probability of prevailing on their complaint against Karl Rountree and his attorney, Morse Mehrban, because it could not show that a previous complaint Rountree had filed against the company lacked probable cause.
Rountree had previously filed a disability discrimination complaint against Chase, alleging that architectural barriers in the public restroom at its gas station prevented individuals in wheelchairs from accessing the mirror and the sink in violation of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, and the state Unruh Civil Rights Act. He later voluntarily dismissed the complaint after he did not participate in a scheduled arbitration hearing.
Chase filed a complaint for malicious prosecution against Rountree and Mehrban, alleging that the lawsuit had been initiated without probable cause and with a “malicious and despicable intent.” According to Chase, the complaint was “part of an ongoing predatory scheme by [Rountree and Mehrban] to extort money from California small businesses for their own personal gain by abusing a statutory scheme that is designed for corrective action not monetary rewards.”
Rountree and Mehrban filed a motion to strike Chase’s complaint, arguing that it fell within the ambit of the state’s anti-SLAPP statute. They contended that Chase could not establish that the suit had been filed without probable cause and with malice, and that Chase therefore could not demonstrate a probability of prevailing on the merits of its action.
Although he found that Rountree and Mehrban had met the first requirement for dismissal of the action because it arose from a protected activity, Etcheverry concluded that Chase had stated and substantiated a legally sufficient claim for malicious prosecution and denied the motion to strike. He also imposed sanctions against Rountree and Mehrban.
Trial Court Erred
On appeal, Rountree and Mehrban contended that the trial court erred in concluding that Chase met its burden of establishing a probability that it would prevail on the malicious prosecution complaint because Chase had failed to prove that the pair had filed the disability discrimination complaint without probable cause.
In an opinion by Justice Herbert Levy, the Court of Appeal agreed and reversed the order denying the motion to strike and imposing sanctions.
Pointing out Rountree is paraplegic and that Chase’s gas station was a place of public accommodation, Levy concluded that Rountree’s allegation that he was unable to use the sink and mirror in the restroom due to his disability stated a claim under the ADA and the Unruh Act that was supported by probable cause.
He rejected Chase’s contention that it had demonstrated a probability of prevailing on is argument because Rountree had made no showing that he had suffered any damages, pointing out that a litigant does not have to prove actual damages to state a disability discrimination cause of action under the Unruh Act. Levy similarly rejected Chase’s allegation that Rountree was not disabled and that he had not attempted to use the bathroom in question, noting that Chase could not rely on its pleadings and that it had failed to support this allegation with “competent, admissible evidence.”
Intent Not Required
Turning to Chase’s argument that Rountree was required to prove the alleged discrimination was intentional under Gunther v. Lin (2006) 144 Cal.App.4th 223 before he could recover damages for Unruh Act violations, Levy noted that Rountree had dismissed the complaint before Gunther was decided and concluded that “it cannot be said that, at the time Rountree filed his complaint, no reasonable attorney would have found his disability discrimination claim to be totally and completely without merit.”
“[W]hile it is clear that Rountree could not recover Unruh Act damages for Chase’s ADA violations under current California law, such was not the case when he filed his complaint in March 2006,” he wrote. “Therefore, Rountree had probable cause to bring his disability discrimination action… [and] Chase’s malicious prosecution action fails, whether or not there is evidence that Rountree’s prior suit was maliciously motivated.”
Justices Steven M. Vartabedian and Dennis A. Cornell joined Levy in his opinion.
The case is Chase, Inc. v. Rountree, F053331.
Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company