Thursday, May 25, 2017
S.C. Will Not Review Anti-SLAPP Ruling in Favor of Facebook
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
A First District Court of Appeal ruling that a New York lawyer’s defamation suit against Facebook, Inc., its founder Mark Zuckerberg, and its general counsel Colin Stretch was properly stricken under the anti-SLAPP statute was left standing yesterday by the state Supreme Court.
The justices, at their weekly conference in San Francisco, unanimously denied review in Argentieri v. Zuckerberg (2017) 8 Cal. App. 5th 768. The Court of Appeal ruled Feb. 15 that statements by the defendants, suggesting Paul Argentieri knew that a lawsuit brought against Facebook and Zuckerberg by his client Paul Ceglia was based on forged documents, fell under the “fair and true reporting” privilege of Civil Code §47(d).
Ceglia, once an upstate New York wood pellet salesman, sued Zuckerberg and Facebook in New York state court in 2010. Argentieri was his lawyer, and the complaint alleged that Ceglia and Zuckerberg—then a Harvard University student—had agreed in writing in 2003 that Ceglia would receive an interest in “The Facebook” in exchange for $1,000 and other considerations.
Ceglia claimed he was entitled under that agreement to an 84 percent ownership interest in the company. Zuckerberg denied signing that contract, explaining that he had, prior to conceiving what eventually became Facebook, agreed to provide website development services for an unrelated project of Ceglia’s called StreetFax.
Zuckerberg said he provided those services in 2003 and 2004, but was not paid in full.
The Ceglia suit was removed to federal court. A magistrate judge, after discovery, concluded that the lawsuit was a fraud on the court, that Ceglia had fabricated the alleged contract and related emails, and that he had destroyed evidence.
The district judge agreed and dismissed the lawsuit in March 2014. The Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed in 2015.
Prosecutors also concluded that Ceglia based his suit on forged documents. He was charged with fraud, but reportedly removed his GPS monitor and fled the jurisdiction.
News outlets reported last summer that he had contacted them, saying he was in hiding because the CIA was after him.
After Ceglia’s suit was thrown out, Facebook and Zuckerberg sued Argentieri, and other lawyers Ceglia had retained after the suit was filed, for malicious prosecution in New York state court. The day the complaint was filed, Stretch emailed members of the media, saying the law firms named in the suit “knew the case was based on forged documents yet they pursued it anyway.”
The other defendants in the case, but not Argentieri, were ordered dismissed by a state appeals court which said those defendants were not shown to have known that the contract was a forgery during the relevant time period.
Argentieri’s California action was filed in October 2015, and accused the defendants of defamation per se, based on Stretch’s statements to the press. Argentieri alleged that forensic scientists had concluded the contract between Ceglia and Zuckerberg was genuine and that Ceglia had passed a polygraph test on the subject.
In granting the anti-SLAPP motion, San Francisco Superior Court Judge Joseph M. Quinn concluded that the challenged statements constituted protected activity in connection with a judicial proceeding. Argentieri, the judge further found, could not prevail as a matter of law because the action was barred by the litigation privilege and the fair and true reporting privilege.
Justice Harry Needham Jr., writing for the Court of Appeal, said Quinn was wrong as to the litigation privilege, but correct as to §47(d).
“Unlike the litigation privilege, the fair and true reporting privilege pertains specifically to communications to the press, and it requires that the report be fair and true, not that it actually further the underlying litigation,” the justice explained. Stretch’s press statement, Needham wrote, truthfully reported the allegations of the complaint; that a court later rejected the allegations as a basis for liability on the part of the others does not render the statement inaccurate as to Argentieri, he said.
In other conference action, the high court summarily denied a habeas corpus petition brought on behalf of octogenarian Robert Lee Shaputis, who was released in March after serving more than 29 years of a 17-year-to-life prison term for the murder of his wife.
The case is the subject of five appellate opinions, including In re Shaputis (2011) Cal. 4th 192, which reversed a Fourth District Court of Appeal ruling in the petitioner’s favor.
His attorney, Dianne Letarte, explained that the parole board, as part of a program designed to comply with federal court overcrowding orders by releasing elderly prisoners, found him suitable for parole in November of last year. The habeas corpus petition had been filed in August, challenging an earlier finding that he was unsuitable.
She argued in court papers, she told the MetNews, that the petition was not moot, because she was hoping to clarify the standard as to what constitutes a “lack of insight”—a frequently cited ground for denial of release—into the crime when the prisoner is elderly and has been locked up for decades. That is not likely to happen at present, she acknowledged, given the summary nature of yesterday’s denial.
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