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Friday, October 2, 2015

Decambre v. Rady Children's Hospital: Court Affirms in Part and Reverses in Part Order Granting Anti-SLAPP Motion in Doctor's Action for Discrimination, Harassment, Retaliation, and Defamation

Over the last month, we have seen two cases dealing with anti-SLAPP motions in the employment law context. In Park v. Board of Trustees (8/27/15) --- Cal.App.4th --- (discussed here), a discrimination action, the Court held that a University's decision to deny tenure arose from protected communicative activity. The Court then remanded to the trial court for a determination of the plaintiff's likelihood of success on the merits. In Barker v. Fox & Associates (9/10/15) --- Cal.App.4th --- (discussed here), a defamation action, the court reversed an order denying the defendant's anti-SLAPP motion, finding that the plaintiff had waived his argument that the alleged statements were not privileged, and that the plaintiff had failed to show a reasonable probability of success on the merits.

Decambre v. Rady Children's Hospital (3/11/15, mod. 4/2/15) --- Cal.App.4th ---, is a third such case, which I missed when it came down earlier this year. The plaintiff was a doctor who sued several defendants, including the hospital where she worked, alleging discrimination, harassment, retaliation, wrongful termination, defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED), and other causes of action. The trial court granted the defendants' anti-SLAPP motion to strike, finding that the defendants' decision not to renew the plaintiff's contract arose from the hospital's peer review process, which was protected as an official proceeding. The Court of Appeal affirmed in part and reversed in part, holding as follows:

Under the anti-SLAPP statute, Code of Civil Procedure section 425.16, and Kibler v. Northern Inyo County Local Hospital Dist. (2006) 39 Cal.4th 192, hospital peer review proceedings constitute protected "official proceeding[s] authorized by law," and the defendants' decision not to renew the plaintiff's contract was the result of that process. The Court rejected the plaintiff's contention that there was no peer review because the defendants did not report their non-renewal to the Medical Board of California. The behavior that led to the decision not to renew did not involve a "medical disciplinary cause or reason," and no such report was required.

The defendants failed to meet their burden to show that the plaintiff's harassment, IIED, and defamation claims arose from protected activity. "The 'principal thrust or gravamen' of the plaintiff's claim determines whether section 425.16 applies," and the court must examine the alleged wrongful conduct, rather than the alleged damages, to determine that issue. Here, the trial court erred in looking to the plaintiff's alleged damages, rather than the defendants' conduct. Some of the conduct underlying the harassment and IIED claims occurred before the peer review process even began, and none of that conduct "occurred within the context of, or in furtherance of, the peer review proceedings." Similarly, the conduct underlying her defamation claim arose after the non-renewal decision and was not part of the peer review proceedings.

In contrast, the defendants did show that the plaintiff's discrimination, failure to prevent discrimination, retaliation, and wrongful termination claims all arose from the peer review process. The wrongful termination claim cannot succeed absent a termination -- the Court did not distinguish between a termination and a non-renewal -- and the FEHA claims cannot succeed absent an adverse employment action. The only adverse employment action alleged here was the non-renewal decision. The defendants' motive, even if discriminatory, did not change the fact that the alleged conduct arose from protected activity.

The defendant having shown that the conduct at issue arose from protected activity, the burden shifted to the plaintiff to show probable success on the merits. The plaintiff failed show that defendants' asserted reasons for the non-renewal were pretextual. She did not refute the defendants' reasons for non-renewal. Instead, she asserted that she "could establish sufficient facts" to prove her claims, and this was not sufficient 
to meet her burden. 

The plaintiff also asserted claims for violation of the Unfair Competition Law and the Cartwright Act, but I will not address those claims here. I also will not address the Court's holding on the trial court's order sustaining the defendants' demurrer to certain causes of action.

The opinion is available here

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