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Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Baughn v. Department of Forestry: Court of Appeal Affirms Denial of Anti-SLAPP Motion

There has been an up-tick over the last year in employment cases raising anti-SLAPP issues. See Park v. Board of Trustees of the California State University (2015) 239 Cal.App.4th 1258 (discussed here), Barker v. Fox & Associates (2015) 240 Cal.App.4th 333 (discussed here), Decambre v. Rady Children's Hospital (2015) 235 Cal.App.4th 1 (discussed here).

Baughn v. Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal.App. 3/11/16, pub. 4/6/16) is another of these cases. The 
Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) terminated Corey Baughn after another employee accused him of sexual harassment. Baughn appealed his termination to the State Personnel Board (SPB), and the parties settled the matter. Baughn later obtained temporary employment with the Ukiah Valley Fire District (Ukiah Valley). Concerned that Baughn's employment with Ukiah Valley would result in him being present at Cal Fire facilities with the person who had accused him of harassment, Cal Fire hand delivered a letter to Ukiah Valley demanding that Baughn not be present at Cal Fire's facilities. This led Ukiah Valley to terminate Baughn. 

Baughn and his union sued Cal Fire for breach of the written settlement stipulation that ended the SPB case, breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, and intentional and negligent interference with prospective economic advantage. Cal Fire filed an anti-SLAPP motion against the union, arguing that the action arose from protected speech and that the union was not likely to succeed on the merits. The trial court denied the motion, Cal Fire appealed, and the Court of Appeal affirmed, holding as follows: 

To prevail on an anti-SLAPP motion, the defendant must show: (1) that the cause of action arises from an act of defendant in furtherance of its right of petition or free speech in connection with a public issue; and (2) the plaintiff has not made a prima facie showing that he or she will succeed on the merits. Protected conduct includes "any other [1] conduct in furtherance of the exercise of the constitutional right of petition or the constitutional right of free speech [2] in connection with a public issue or an issue of public interest." Cal. Code Civ. Proc. 425.16(e)(4). 

Cal Fire failed to meet the first requirement because the decision to write and send the letter were not made “in connection with a public issue or an issue of public interest.” 
The issue raised in the letter did not concern a substantial number of people. It concerned the writer, the recipient, Baughn, and his earlier victim. At the very most, it concerned the defined set of Cal Fire firefighters who would use the same facility that Baughn would use in his employment with Ukiah Valley. This was a relatively small audience. 
The issue raised in the letter also did not concern a "written or oral statement or writing made in connection with an issue under consideration or review by a legislative, executive, or judicial body, or any other official proceeding authorized by law" under section 425.16(e)(2). Even if the letter concerned the SPB proceedings, those proceedings were no longer "under consideration" by the SPB or any other governmental entity. 

The trial court erred in awarding attorney fees to the union. A court may award attorney fees to a prevailing plaintiff only where it finds that the motion is frivolous or brought solely to cause delay. The trial court may no such finding here. The Court remanded for reconsideration of this issue. 

The opinion is available here.

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