Monday, May 23, 2011
Executive’s Suit Against Union Over Leafletting No SLAPP—C.A.
By SHERRI M. OKAMOTO, Staff Writer
A labor union engaged in potentially actionable conduct by having members distribute flyers disparaging a company executive to his neighbors, the Third District Court of Appeal has ruled.
In an April 27 decision ordered published Friday, the panel explained that Jim Price’s defamation action against Operating Engineers Local Union No. 3 was not a strategic lawsuit against public participation since the labor organization’s leafleting activities concerned a private matter.
“The fact that the flyers’ distribution took place during a labor dispute and was undertaken by members of organized labor did not cause the action to rise to the level of a matter of public interest,” the justices said.
Price worked for Road Machinery LLC, a Phoenix-based corporation which provides equipment for the mining, construction, industrial and governmental markets in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.
He was serving as vice president and general manager of the company’s California division in 2008, when negotiations began for new collective bargaining agreements for union members who worked at the Fresno, San Leandro and West Sacramento facilities.
Price was not part of Road Machinery’s collective bargaining committee and claimed he had no ability to influence the negotiations, which came to an impasse in September 2009.
After the union members went on strike, union members came to Price’s home at the Cobble Oaks apartment complex in Rancho Cordova on three separate occasions and distributed flyers to residents and guests.
One version of the flyer contained read, “NEIGHBORS, BEWARE OF THIS MAN: JIM PRICE”; “[p]rotect your family, safeguard your property”; “there is no telling what he might do”; and “[c]omplain to Cobble Oaks about the sort of person they’ve let in your community.” The flyer listed Price’s business cell phone number and his apartment number, and encouraged Price’s neighbors to complain to him directly.
A second flyer was also distributed, which identified Price as a “COBBLE OAKS RESIDENT” and said he “tried to take away workers’ pension benefits”; “threatened workers with arrest for publicizing their fight for workplace justice”; and “threatened to use armed guards against the workers to shut down their strike.” This flyer also listed Price’s business cell phone number and apartment number.
Price claimed that he was subjected to a variety of other intimidation techniques by the union and its members before he filed suit and asserted causes of action for defamation, emotional distress, invasion of privacy and stalking. The union moved to strike the entire complaint under Code of Civil Procedure Sec. 425.16.
Sacramento Superior Court Judge Allen H. Sumner denied the union’s motion, finding the union had not met its threshold burden of establishing that the challenged causes of action arose from acts in furtherance of its right of petition or free speech within the meaning of the anti-SLAPP statute.
Writing for the appellate court, Justice Elena J. Duarte clarified that Price’s defamation and false light claims based on the content of the flyers the union distributed arose from acts in furtherance of the organization’s right of free speech, but that such speech was not made in connection with a “public issue” or an “issue of public interest,” as required for protection under the statute.
Duarte noted that the anti-SLAPP statute does not define the terms “public issue” or “issue of public interest,” but reasoned this case was analogous to Rivero v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, AFL-CIO (2003) 105 Cal.App.4th 913.
“Here, as in Rivero, a small number of workers was involved in the strike,” she said, and the strike was not “a topic of widespread community interest or prior media coverage, or even a topic of interest to a substantial number of people.”
The justice further reasoned that “Price was not involved in the strike negotiations; the Union distributed the flyers at his home, in a different city from the jobsite; the flyers were for the most part personal and not strike related; and the target (even captive) audience members were neighbors who had neither knowledge of, nor interest in, the strike.”
As “there was no demonstrated connection between Road Machinery’s West Sacramento facility and Rancho Cordova’s Cobble Oaks residents” or any indication that the union “distributed the flyers at issue to engage Cobble Oaks residents or visitors in any discussion that was of public interest,” Duarte concluded Price’s action was properly allowed to proceed.
Presiding Justice Vance W. Raye and Justice Ronald B. Robie joined Duarte in her decision.
The case is Price v. Operating Engineers Local Union No. 3., 11 S.O.S. 2654.
Copyright 2011, Metropolitan News Company