April 2, 2015
Deep-pocketed companies have a long history of filing frivolous lawsuits in order to pressure defendants into silence with expensive legal costs. This strategy is known as a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP), and several states have anti-SLAPP laws to deter this type of behavior. Plaintiffs that file these lawsuits can face penalties, but now a California appeals court is considering whether plaintiffs’ lawyers should be held accountable for allowing their clients to behave badly.
The case being considered was initiated by a California woman after she was sued by a nursing home for defamation, simply because her boyfriend copied her elderly mother’s Bet Tzedek legal aid attorney on an e-mail to the home. After a three-year legal battle that ultimately was dismissed by the plaintiff, the woman, with her boyfriend, filed their own lawsuit, alleging malicious prosecution by both the nursing home and the law firm representing the home, Arent Fox.
Although a trial court initially allowed the lawsuit to move forward with Arent Fox named as a defendant, a later decision had the effect of removing the law firm as a defendant in the case. Now, an appeal of this decision is pending, and the stakes are much higher than potential ramifications against one firm.
“The answer here has broad implications regarding access to justice and advice of counsel,” reads the appeal. “Should clients be afraid of copying correspondence with an offending party to their attorney, because they can be sued for defamation? Do people have to be careful what they say or show to their attorney about another person because it could conceivably provide grounds for defamation?”
This is particularly problematic, argue the plaintiffs, because the original complaint involved a communication with a lawyer at a non-profit legal aid organization. In an amicus brief filed by the Legal Aid Association of California in support of the appeal, the organization says that the decision of the lower court to strike the claims against Arent Fox “has the potential to threaten the ability of LAAC’s members to serve their clients effectively.” It concludes, “This case… has broad implications for the delivery of legal services to the thousands of Californians that access free legal help every day and for the court system that could be inundated with cases that legal aid lawyers might otherwise have resolved prior to litigation.”
LAAC Amicus Curiae Brief
Organizations mentioned/involved: Bet Tzedek Legal Services, Legal Aid Association of California (LAAC)