How Victims Can Use Anti-SLAPP Motions to Fight Defamation Lawsuits

When you come forward as an abuse victim, being called a liar is unfortunately common. Being sued for defamation or malicious prosecution because your abuser says you are lying is far worse. Find out how you can use California’s anti-SLAPP laws to shut down baseless lawsuits designed to keep you quiet.

What Is an Anti-SLAPP Motion?

You may not know what SLAPP means in the legal world, but you may have heard of someone being “slapped” with a lawsuit because they were standing up for themselves or their rights. SLAPP stands for “Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation.” It is an underhanded tactic used by powerful people with money to spare to silence those who would stand up to them.

They aren’t filed to win, or even to collect settlement damages. Instead, they are supposed to scare the people being sued. Now-President Donald Trump summed it up well in 2011, talking about a lawsuit he filed against an author and publishing company he said underestimated his net worth:

“I spent a couple of bucks on legal fees, and they spent a whole lot more. I did it to make his life miserable, which I’m happy about.”

An Anti-SLAPP motion is a shield against this form of legal harassment. Under California law, a defendant in a defamation or malicious prosecution case can file a special anti-SLAPP motion, asking the court to stop the case and dismiss the complaint if they can show they are likely to win case and the lawsuit is based on a “protected activity” such as:

  • Writing to your representative, senator, mayor or governor
  • Testifying in a judicial proceeding (including at a criminal trial)
  • Speaking in a public forum about an issue of public interest
  • Writing to a newspaper about an issue of public interest
  • Exercising your constitutional right to free speech or to petition your government

Using Anti-SLAPP Motions When You are Sued for Defamation or Malicious Prosecution

There is no federal law protecting against SLAPP suits, but California’s Anti-SLAPP statute is one of the strongest in the country. Remembering titles like plaintiff and defendant can be confusing in these lawsuits, especially because an abuser can sometimes file SLAPP claims in a victim’s own sexual harassment or negligence lawsuit. Rather than getting tangled up on who is who, consider this (fictional) example of how California’s Anti-SLAPP motion works:

Anna was an assistant to Bart, a corporate CEO and an influential philanthropist in her local community. While Bart had a positive public face, he was hard to work for. He was often demanding of Anna, and frequently asked her to do humiliating things. One night, Bart crossed the line, sexually assaulting Anna in his hotel room while they were in California on business. Anna went to the local police department the next day, and the prosecutors began to develop a case against Bart. At the same time, Anna hired a victim’s advocate to help her file complaints for sexual harassment and file a protective order and civil lawsuit against Bart for his actions.

Bart had far more financial resources than Anna. He was also worried about what the criminal charges and lawsuit would do to his reputation. He thought by making the lawsuit too expensive he could get Anna to agree to drop the charges and dismiss the case against him. He filed a lawsuit of his own, claiming that Anna’s public press conference was defamation and that her criminal case against him was malicious prosecution.

How California’s Anti-SLAPP Statute Protects Abuse Victims

Without anti-SLAPP, California civil law can take months or even years to resolve a lawsuit. Counter-claims and investigations (called discovery) can cost thousands of dollars in attorney fees. That’s why California’s anti-SLAPP statute is so important for protecting abuse victims like Anna.

When Bart filed his SLAPP suit for defamation and malicious prosecution, Anna could file an Anti-SLAPP motion within the first 60 days of the case. Once she does so, California law freezes all discovery in the case. Without discovery, Bart will have a harder time poking holes in Anna’s story. He probably won’t have had a chance to take her deposition or question her about her version of events.

The civil court judge will then review the evidence both sides have and determine if Anna was exercising a “protected activity” and whether Bart is likely to prevail in the case. Bart will have to show that his case has merit without access to Anna’s records or her testimony, so if she was telling the truth to police, prosecutors, and news reporters, she is likely to win her Anti-SLAPP motion and get the defamation and malicious prosecution case dismissed.

If an abuse victim wins their Anti-SLAPP motion, they may also be awarded attorney fees and costs. Since SLAPP suits are designed to make abuse victims and others asserting their rights spend money, this is an important part of California’s anti-SLAPP protections. By working with an experienced victim’s rights attorney to file and prove your anti-SLAPP motion, you may be able to prevent your abuser from making you pay for going to court.

At ADZ Law, LLP, our victim’s rights attorneys understand how to use California’s Anti-SLAPP laws to shield victims from abusers who would use the courts to continue their harassment. We can help you file special Anti-SLAPP motions to dismiss these baseless lawsuits early, and collect the legal fees you need to carry on with your fight and tell your truth. We invite you to contact ADZ Law, LLP to schedule a consultation to learn more about our team, and how we can help you.