Tuesday, December 16, 2008
S.C. Limits Scope of ‘Public Interest’ Exception to Anti-SLAPP Law
Justices Unanimously Side With Sierra Club Leadership in Dispute With Dissidents
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The “public interest” exception to the anti-SLAPP statute only applies if an action is brought solely for the public good, by plaintiffs whose personal stake in the outcome is no greater than the general public’s, the state Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
In a unanimous decision, the justices revived the Sierra Club’s claim for attorney fees and costs it incurred in moving to strike a complaint brought against it by a group called Club Members for an Honest Election.
Club Members for an Honest Election, and other dissidents, claimed they were treated unfairly during the Sierra Club’s 2004 national board election.
The dispute has its roots in efforts to change the leadership and focus of the club, whose 750,000 members and $95 million budget make it the largest environmental group in the country.
The dissidents said they wanted to restore the group to its original principles. They favored ousting the chief executive, Carl Pope; claimed that a small number of wealthy donors have an inordinate impact on club policy; and wanted to move the group to support stricter immigration controls, contrary to a board vote years earlier to maintain neutrality on the issue.
Others accused the dissidents of promoting racism and a radical animal rights agenda, and claimed to represent the views of the majority of members. They said the dissidents were seeking to take advantage of the fact that 90 percent or so of the members do not vote in the annual board elections.
The board consists of 15 members, five of whom are elected each year. The board elects the president, who is the only board member to draw a salary.
Board candidates are nominated by a committee appointed by the board, or by petition. Dissidents won one seat in the 2002 election and two in 2003, but have not achieved success since.
Prior to the 2004 election, the board circulated to its chapters an article concerning what the author called the “narrow, personal, one issue agendas” that were being pursued by unnamed “people and parties” as a result of the low participation numbers in the club’s elections.
‘Urgent Election Notice’
The board also voted to approve an “urgent election notice” informing members of “an unprecedented level of outside involvement” in the election and the fact that certain outside groups “may be attempting to intervene” in the election. Among the groups named were the Federation for American Immigration Reform, the white supremacist National Alliance, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and White Politics Inc./Overthrow.com.
Following the board meeting, the dissident Club Members group and one of the candidates nominated by petition filed suit in San Francisco Superior Court.
They claimed that the actions taken by the board, including allowing three “fake candidates” to circulate ballot statements in which they disclaimed any desire to be elected and asked members to vote for other candidates aligned with the incumbent leadership, violated fairness requirements in the California Corporations Code and the club by-laws.
The plaintiffs asked for a preliminary injunction barring the winners of the 2004 election—which resulted in a sharp increase in turnout and victory for candidates backed by the nominating committee—from taking office and changes in procedures for future elections.
With regard to the board seats that would otherwise be filled by the winning candidates, the plaintiffs, in an amended complaint filed after the election, proposed three alternatives—seat the next highest votegetters, who included plaintiff Robert van de Hoek and “fake candidate” Phillip Berry; leave the seats vacant, temporarily reducing the board to 10 members, or holding a new election.
The new pleading also included a cause of action charging two directors who were re-elected as nominating committee candidates with a breach of fiduciary duty for voting in favor of the allegedly unfair measures approved by the court and urging that they be unseated and barred from future elections.
Trial Court Ruling
San Francisco Superior Court Judge James Warren, now retired, held that the breach-of-fiduciary duty claim, and a portion of the cause of action challenging the election under the Corporations Code, were barred by the anti-SLAPP law, and that the defendants were entitled to summary judgment as to the suit as a whole.
Warren awarded the Sierra Club more than $37,000 in fees and costs in connection with its partial success as to the anti-SLAPP motion.
On appeal, Club Members for an Honest Election did not challenge the award of summary judgment, but did contest the award of fees and costs under the anti-SLAPP statute. The Sierra Club argued on cross-appeal that the anti-SLAPP motion, and consequently fees and costs, should have been granted as to all causes of action.
The Court of Appeal’s Div. One held that while the breach-of-fiduciary duty claim was properly stricken, the remaining causes of action fell within Sec. 425.17(b)’s exception for actions affecting the public interest.
Justice Carol Corrigan, however, writing yesterday for the high court, said the exception did not apply and that all causes of action should have been stricken under the anti-SLAPP law, Sec. 425.16.
Corrigan emphasized that under Sec. 425.17(b), in order to avoid an anti-SLAPP ruling, the burden is on the plaintiff to show that the action was brought “solely” in the public’s interest and the plaintiff is not seeking “any” personal relief.
Club Members for an Honest Election, the justice noted, was seeking to, among other things, obtain injunctive relief that would give its candidates a “personal advantage” in Sierra Club elections.
The Court of Appeal, she went on to say, erred in analogizing to the private attorney general statute, Sec. 1021.5, which authorizes an award of attorney fees to a plaintiff who successfully sues for the benefit of the general public or a large number of persons. While the sections contain similar language, Corrigan explained, they serve different purposes.
Unlike Sec. 425.17(b), the jurist noted, the private attorney general statute does not require that an action be brought “solely” in the public interest for the provision to apply, nor does it absolutely preclude application in a case where the party seeking to invoke it has sought some relief that is personal to that party.
The case is Club Members for an Honest Election v. Sierra Club, 08 S.O.S. 6653.
Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company