Internet Commenter Beats Defamation Suit with Anti-SLAPP Motion - California Case Law
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Internet Commenter Beats Defamation Suit with Anti-SLAPP Motion

Thanks to California's anti-SLAPP law, businesses that get burned on public review websites are unlikely to win a defamation suit against their dissatisfied commenters.

A California appellate court rejected an anti-SLAPP appeal last week, finding that an Internet commenter's personal attacks against a businessman were protected speech.

Darren Chaker, (the plaintiff and appellant) had a brief romantic relationship with Nicole Mateo (Nicole). During the relationship, Nicole became pregnant with Chaker's child. After the birth of the child, Chaker and Nicole had a contentious paternity and child support dispute.

In 2010, a series of derogatory statements about Chaker and his forensics business appeared on an Internet site where members of the public may comment on the reliability and honesty of businesses and service providers. The comments accused Chaker of being a deadbeat dad, a criminal, and a drug user, in addition to fraud and deceit. Chaker attributed the statements to Nicole's mother, Wendy Mateo. The websites contained other derogatory statements apparently posted by Nicole.

In 2010, Chaker sued Wendy and Nicole, alleging defamation based on the statements which appeared on the sites. Wendy responded with an anti-SLAPP motion.

A SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) is a lawsuit brought for the purpose of chilling participation in matters of public significance through litigation. California Code of Civil Procedure Section 425.16 permits a special motion to strike in any SLAPP suit and freezes discovery. The statute is designed to prevent SLAPPs by disposing of them cheaply and early, and by permitting the prevailing movant to collect attorney's fees and costs.

The statute requires a trial court to undertake a two-step process in determining whether to grant a SLAPP motion. First, the court decides whether the defendant has made a threshold prima facie showing that the defendant's acts were taken in furtherance of her constitutional rights of petition or free speech in connection with a public issue. If the court finds the defendant has made the requisite showing, the burden then shifts to the plaintiff to establish a 'probability' of prevailing on the claim by making a prima facie showing of facts that would, if proved, support a judgment in the plaintiff's favor.

Here, Chaker claimed that, because Wendy allegedly posted her statements on websites and they were about matters which concerned his dispute with her daughter, they were not statements which implicated her right of free speech. Both the trial court and the appellate court rejected that contention. The courts ruled in favor of Wendy's anti-SLAPP motion based on controlling precedent from three California cases: Wilbanks v. Wolk, Hecimovich v. Encinal School Parent Teacher Organization, and Terry v. Davis Community Church.

Because the record showed the Wendy's statements were made in a public forum with respect to a matter of public interest within the meaning of the statute, Chaker bore the burden of showing a probability of prevailing on his defamation claim. The court found that he didn't meet that burden, and affirmed the judgment.

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