Monday, February 27, 2017
C.A. Says Church’s Suit Against Donor Was a SLAPP
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
A portion of a suit by the Los Angeles Diocese of the Protestant Episcopal Church against a donor who disputed the church’s right to sell parish property to a developer must be stricken under the anti-SLAPP law, the Fourth District Court of Appeal ruled Friday.
Reversing an Orange Superior Court ruling, Div. Three said the slander of title claim against the Griffith Company implicated protected activity in connection with an issue of public interest, as the proposed construction of condominiums on the property provoked considerable public and media comment. The court further held that the church could not show a likelihood of success on that cause of action, because the litigation privilege was a complete defense.
The dispute over the property on Lido Isle in Newport Beach grew out a schism in the church, as many congregations split away from the parent church following the ordination of an openly gay bishop in New Hampshire in 2003. This led to litigation in several states, with the California cases being resolved in favor of the parent church and against the breakaway congregations, based on the church’s governing documents.
After those cases were decided, the Los Angeles diocese formed a new congregation on the Newport Beach site, but later announced it would sell the property. Parishioners were informed in May 2015 that the sale would close the following month.
Efforts to block the sale led to the discovery that the property included four parcels that the Griffith Company had donated subject to a restrictive covenant limiting the property’s use to “church purposes.” Although the company had quitclaimed three of the parcels, thereby releasing the restriction, subsequent to its donation, one of the parcels remained restricted.
As opponents became more vocal, expressing opposition to the sale and additional density in the press, at a City Council meeting, and at an informal “Town Hall,” Griffith’s general counsel wrote to the bishop, asserting the deed restriction and explaining that the company only quitclaimed the other parcels so that they could be used for parking.
Griffith, the letter said, would continue to assert “any and all of its rights, title, and interests in the property.”
‘Cloud on Title’
The diocese responded that the letter “created a cloud on the Church’s title” and asked the company to “execute the appropriate documents to clear title.” Griffith retention of a restrictive covenant on a single parcel, the diocese said, was simply a mistake.
After opponents sued to stop the sale, the diocese sued Griffith, seeking to quiet title and asking for damages for slander of title based on the company’s letter.
Orange Superior Court Judge David Chaffee denied the company’s anti-SLAPP motion, concluding that the dispute was about property, not free speech, and that the disagreement between the parties was private, not public, in nature.
But Justice David Thompson, in an unpublished opinion for the Court of Appeal, said that, unlike the prior litigation over the property, and the opponents’ suit seeking to stop the sale, the church’s current suit arose out of a communication. “While the Bishop’s ability to prevail on the merits of the slander of title claim might be intertwined with the issue of whether it prevails in the ownership dispute, the basis of the claim remains the allegedly slanderous communication,” Thompson wrote.
The litigation privilege, he went on to say, is fatal to the church’s suit because Griffith is a potential witness in the litigation to stop the sale, and the letter reflects how the company’s representatives might testify.
The case is Bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church in Los Angeles, G053344.
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