Federal Court in Utah Holds California Anti-SLAPP Statute Applicable to Diversity Defamation Action

by Paul Alan Levy

Judge Tena Campbell of the United States District Court has issued an interesting decision holding that a California woman sued in diversity by a Utah company may file a special motion to strike the plaintiff’s defamation claim.   The case involves a suit by the “Diamond Ranch Academy” against Chelsea Filer, a California woman whose own experiences at a residential youth treatment center stimulated an interest in abuses at such places generally.  Her web site Diamond Ranch Academy Survivors criticizes the plaintiff company.

Parting company with a recent ruling of the D.C. Circuit in Abbas v. Foreign Policy Group, which was discussed in the briefs but is not mentioned in the opinion, Judge Campbell finds a special motion to strike analogous to a summary judgment motion and hence not in conflict with the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.  Disposing easily of a consideration that influenced the Abbas panel, Judge Campbell holds that because the California anti-SLAPP creates an exception to the general stay of discovery once an anti-SLAPP motion is filed, allowing the trial court to permit discovery when good cause is shown, the California statute’s treatment of discovery is analogous to Rule 56(d), under which a demonstrated need for discovery can provide a basis for deferring a ruling on a summary judgment motion.

Although Judge Campbell’s ruling on the Erie issue follows a well-worn path — apart from the DC Circuit, federal courts have consistently upheld the application of state anti-SLAPP statutes to state claims filed in diversity — her opinion also addresses the fairly novel issue of whether the Utah or the California anti-SLAPP statute applies.  She held that the California rule is the relevant one because, although the parties agreed that Utah law governs the defamation claims, Utah choice of law principles call for making choice of law determinations issue by issue, and in the case of anti-SLAPP laws, the main issue is one of immunity from baseless litigation against speakers on an issue of public interest, and more generally the protection of the right of free speech.  For those purposes, it is California that has the most significant relationship to the issue, because the speech was published in California and the immunity will protect a California resident against the burdens of litigation.

Because the defendant in Abbas has apparently decided to accept its affirmance on other grounds of the dismissal of the defamation action in that case, even though the ruling disposed of ifs claim for attorney fees under the DC Anti-SLAPP law, we will have to look to courts in other parts of the country to continue to expand the application of anti-SLAPP laws in diversity cases.  Decisions such as Diamond Ranch Academy point in the right direction.

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