Friday, March 7, 2008
Court: Anti-SLAPP Statute Does Not Shield Official in Defamation Suit
By STEVEN M. ELLIS, Staff Writer
California’s Anti-SLAPP statute does not shield a county supervisor who made hostile public statements about a local mobile home park owner to local residents and the media from a defamation action, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled yesterday.
Reversing the decision of U.S. District Judge Napoleon A. Jones of the Southern District of California by a vote of 2-1, the court held that San Diego County Supervisor Dianne Jacob could not rely on the statute to strike a complaint against her by Manufactured Home Communities Inc. because a reasonable fact-finder could conclude that Jacob’s statements about the owner declared or implied assertions of fact, rather than opinions.
The owner brought the complaint against Jacobs after she—in response to the owner’s decision to raise tenants’ rent by 25 percent—made statements at tenants meetings and to local media that the company, among other acts, lied about fixing a sewage leak in one of their parks and enjoyed driving out elderly tenants, and that the district attorney was interested in investigating the owner’s operation of its mobile home parks.
Filing its suit in federal court, the owner alleged that the county and Jacob had violated its First Amendment rights, and also asserted state-law tort claims of defamation and tortious interference with prospective economic advantage.
Statements of Opinion
The county and Jacob filed a special motion to strike the complaint, and Jones granted the motion, reasoning that Jacob’s statements were in furtherance of her rights to petition or free speech, and that the statements were not actionable because they were merely statements of opinion.
The owner appealed, arguing that a reasonable fact-finder could find some of the statements to be provably false assertions of fact, and the Court of Appeals agreed.
Writing for the majority, Judge Diarmuid F. O’Scannlain said that “[w]hile the district court may have been correct in its assessment that each of these statements is properly interpreted as an assertion of opinion rather than fact, a reasonable factfinder could disagree with that assessment.”
Noting that the district court had declared that Jacob’s statement about the district attorney’s intentions was “not factually untrue,” he asked, “[i]f the district court can assess the truth or falsity of the claim, that seems a strong indication that it was a provably false assertion of fact, and therefore actionable.”
Judge Cynthia Holcomb Hall joined O’Scannlain in his opinion.
However, Judge Consuelo M. Callahan wrote in dissent that the district court had properly concluded that Jacob’s statements were statements of opinion.
“Rather than considering whether the three statements implied facts that a reasonable person could construe as provably false…,” she wrote, “given the context and content of the statements, no reasonable person would have concluded that Supervisor Jacob was implying that she had additional, defamatory, factual information.”
Accompanied by Facts
Pointing out that each of Jacob’s statements was accompanied by the facts on which she was asked to comment, or at least the facts upon which she based the statement, Callahan said that “whether or not a reasonable listener could have thought that the statements implied untrue facts is irrelevant because ‘no reasonable reader would consider the [statement] anything but the opinion of the author drawn from the circumstances related.’”
But O’Scannlain rejected this conclusion.
“[A] reasonable listener could conclude that Jacob’s statements were founded in part on an objective, factual basis, especially in light of Jacob’s role as a public servant and her having made some of the relevant statements in response to news reporter’s questions,” he wrote. “Jacob’s statements were not clearly attached to such an outline of fact, nor did she explicitly link her statements to an express factual basis.”
The case is Manufactured Home Communities, Inc. v. County of San Diego, No. 05-56401.
Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company