Anti-SLAPP motions can be a useful tool for school districts and community college districts facing meritless litigation. It allows a defendant, including a public entity, to bring a motion to strike the lawsuit at the preliminary stages of litigation and, if successful, can not only lead to the end of the litigation, but can also result in the public entity recovering their attorneys’ fees from the opposing party. The rules governing anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) motions, however, contain many exemptions which sometimes limit their utility for public officials and entities. California courts recently decided two cases which may significantly expand the number of lawsuits subject to anti-SLAPP motions in the public entity context and make the rules more helpful for school districts and community college districts.
City of Montebello v. Vasquez (Aug. 8, 2016, No. S219052) ___ Cal.4th __ [2016 WL 4169258]
The City of Montebello (city) sued three of its former councilmembers and a former city administrator, claiming they violated Government Code section 1090, the prohibition on an official’s involvement in a contract in which they have a financial interest, by voting on a waste hauling contract in which they allegedly held a financial interest.
The former officials filed an anti-SLAPP motion to strike the city’s complaint. On review, the California Supreme Court issued an opinion suggesting their motion should be granted. The decision: (1) expanded the application of California’s anti-SLAPP statute to lawsuits challenging the votes of elected officials; and (2) significantly narrowed the application of the public enforcement exemption under the anti-SLAPP statute.
The city had argued that its litigation was exempt from an anti-SLAPP motion, since the anti-SLAPP statute does not apply to “public enforcement” actions. The court, however, held that in order to fall into the exemption, an action must be brought “both ‘in the name of the people of the State of California’ and ‘by the Attorney General, district attorney, or city attorney, acting as a public prosecutor.’” The city’s suit did not meet both parts of this test.
The court also tackled the question of whether voting by elected officials was protected activity subject to the anti-SLAPP statute. An anti-SLAPP motion may only be brought where the activity which led to the lawsuit was taken in furtherance of the right of petition or free speech. While acknowledging that the U.S. Supreme Court has held that voting by elected officials is not protected under the First Amendment, the California Supreme Court reasoned that the anti-SLAPP statute’s application was broader, applying to acts taken in “furtherance” of First Amendment rights, including such votes at a public meeting.
The court was careful to distinguish lawsuits brought against actions of a governmental body which are not characterized as protected activity from the expressive conduct of individual board members. Most government action is taken after a discussion and vote at a public meeting, and the court recognized the potential chilling effect on lawsuits challenging such actions if the decisions of public entities as a whole were routinely subject to anti-SLAPP motions.
While the holding does not prevent lawsuits against public officials based on their votes, it imposes a procedural barrier which officials may be able to use to defend against such challenges earlier and recover their attorneys’ fees in the process. At the same time, the court distinguished this situation from lawsuits brought against actions of a governmental body as a whole, which are not characterized as protected activity and would not be subject to anti-SLAPP motions.
Cruz v. City of Culver City (Aug. 8, 2016, No. B265690) ___ Cal.App.4th __ [2016 WL 4182502]
Several residents sued Culver City for allegedly violating the Brown Act: (1) by discussing a change to parking restrictions in their neighborhood at a council meeting even though it was not on the agenda; and (2) by taking action on that issue when the council implicitly decided that the new challenge to those restrictions could proceed as an appeal of an earlier denial by city staff members.
Culver City brought an anti-SLAPP motion seeking to dismiss the residents’ action because the city’s alleged misconduct arose from protected speech during a public meeting. On appeal, the Court of Appeal agreed with the Culver City. Examining another exemption to the anti-SLAPP statute, the court held that the litigation did not fall under the “public benefit” exemption to the anti-SLAPP rules.
A claim is not subject to the anti-SLAPP statutes under the public benefit exemption if the claim: (1) does not seek any relief greater or different from the relief sought for the general public; (2) the action, if successful, would enforce an important public right; and (3) private enforcement is necessary and disproportionately burdensome for plaintiff. In concluding that the public benefit exemption did not apply, the court determined that the residents were seeking personal relief in their efforts to stop the city from lifting parking restrictions that specifically benefitted residents. The fact that they pursued this aim through a Brown Act challenge did not alter their underlying purpose.
Although the holding does not prevent challenges where a legislative body has allegedly violated the Brown Act, like City of Montebello, it provides public entities with a tool to defend against meritless lawsuits soon after they are filed and with the potential for recovery of their attorneys’ fees. As those challenging Brown Act compliance usually have an underlying substantive disagreement with the legislative body, this holding suggests that such litigation would be subject to anti-SLAPP motions despite the general public benefit provided by compliance with the Brown Act.
For more information about these cases, or any other questions, please contact a DWK attorney.