Wednesday, December 21, 2016
Court of Appeal Says Treatment Center’s Defamation Suit Is Not a SLAPP
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A libel suit by the operator of a substance abuse treatment center against a defendant who republished a critical newspaper article on his website was not subject to dismissal under the anti-SLAPP statute because it does not concern a matter of public interest, the Fourth District Court of Appeal ruled yesterday.
Div. Three affirmed Orange Superior Court Judge Ronald Bauer’s denial of the motion brought by Leonard Buschel and his nonprofit group, Writers in Treatment, Inc. Buschel edits and publishes the group’s electronic newsletter, which includes excerpts from, and links to, articles about drug and alcohol abuse treatment.
Dual Diagnosis Treatment Center, Inc., which does business as Sovereign Health of California, filed suit last year after Buschel referenced and linked to an Orange County Register article, originally published five years earlier. The article said that Sovereign was being investigated for running an unlicensed residential treatment program, and that the doctor running it had been stripped of his license “for conducting unethical drug trials on mentally ill patients.”
Buschel subsequently published a “Retraction and Apology,” containing language provided by Sovereign, which sued about three weeks later for libel, false light, and negligence. Buschel and Writers in Treatment claimed in their anti-SLAPP motion that the suit arose from the exercise of First Amendment rights in connection with a matter of public interest—“how addiction treatment facilities operate”—and that the plaintiff was unlikely to prevail because of federal statutory immunity for online republication of third-party content.
The plaintiff responded that the article had nothing to do with matters of public interest and that it was likely to prevail because no immunities applied.
Justice Eileen Moore, writing for the Court of Appeal, agreed with the trial judge that the anti-SLAPP statute did not apply.
The defendants, she said, were arguing what one court called “the synecdoche theory of public issue”—that any statement that relates to a broader topic that is of public interest is covered by the statute.
The statements at issue, she said, considered nothing more than the purported license status of a single facility. “They did not concern treatment and rehabilitation facilities, in general, or even all of Sovereign’s facilities,” the justice noted.
She distinguished M.G. v. Time Warner, Inc. (2001) 89 Cal.App.4th 623, which held that a Sports Illustrated story that used a photo of the plaintiffs’ Little League team to illustrate a story about a former coach convicted of child molestation dealt with a public issue. Unlike the article linked to by Buschel, however, the SI piece dealt with a broader issue, that of child molestation in youth sports, Moore said.
Moore went on to say that the case was similar to Rivero v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, AFL-CIO (2003) 105 Cal.App.4th 913, which held that a suit charging a labor union with defaming a custodial supervisor by distributing critical leaflets regarding disputes with his subordinates was not a SLAPP.
The First District Court of Appeal explained in that case that not every statement by a union about a workplace dispute constitutes a “public issue.” The court said there was insufficient public interest in a dispute limited to a single supervisor, who was not a public figure, and just eight workers.
The case is Dual Diagnosis Treatment Center, Inc. v. Buschel, G053046.
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