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March 2016

Los Angeles Team Granted Anti-SLAPP Motion in University Employment Case

Los Angeles partner Stephen Ronk and senior counsel Andrea K. Douglas successfully handled the appeal of an order granting their anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) motion in favor of Gordon & Rees’s client, the governing board of a local university. The plaintiff sued the board for employment-related claims, including a cause of action for defamation when she was disciplined and terminated pursuant to university policy following a workplace altercation in which she shoved her supervisor. The trial court granted the anti-SLAPP motion concluding that the speech at issue in her defamation claim was made in the course of an official proceeding and was therefore protected, and Plaintiff failed to demonstrate the likelihood of success on the merits of the claim. 

On appeal, Plaintiff argued that the trial court erroneously found that the speech was made in the course of an official proceeding because there was not a hearing on Plaintiff’s termination and Plaintiff did not have a forum to appeal the termination decision. Gordon & Rees argued that because the board is a constitutional entity with quasi-judicial powers, its policies have the force and effect of statute. As such, an investigation conducted pursuant to university policy was necessarily an official proceeding – regardless of whether there was a formal hearing. 

In affirming the trial court ruling, the Court of Appeal agreed that because the board has rulemaking and policymaking power concerning the university, the board’s investigation of Plaintiff’s misconduct was an official proceeding pursuant to the anti-SLAPP statute. Accordingly, any statements made in the context of that proceeding were constitutionally protected and subject to an anti-SLAPP motion. Because the trial court properly concluded the anti-SLAPP statute applied, the burden shifted to Plaintiff to demonstrate a probability of prevailing on the merits, which she failed to do. The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s ruling and awarded Gordon & Rees’s client its costs on appeal.  

Andrea K. Douglas
Stephen E. Ronk