Defamation / Reputation
Johnson v. Steele
Closed Expands Expression
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The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California granted Greenpeace’s Motions to Dismiss and Motions to Strike based on the California Anti-SLAPP statute finding that Greenpeace International’s campaigns against Resolute Forest Products (‘Resolute’) were not carried out with actual malice so could not support a claim for defamation and therefore met the First Amendment requirements for protection. The Court reasoned that as a limited-purpose public figure Resolute had to allege and plead facts supporting actual malice, which it failed to do, and in any event, the hyperbolic statements it complained of were not capable of being proven false and were therefore protected speech under the First Amendment.
The Court subsequently, on April 22, 2020, granted Greenpeace ‘s anti-SLAPP application for attorney fees and compensation against Resolute in the sum of $545,572.36 for attorneys’ fees and $20,687.18 in costs and ordered Resolute to reimburse Greenpeace Fund $249,296.26 in fees and $368.95 in costs.
The Plaintiff, Resolute Forest Products (‘Resolute’), is a multi-entity company in the forest products industry, which harvests trees, and mills wood to generate paper and other products. The Defendant, Greenpeace International (‘Greenpeace’), is a non-profit organization that advocates for environmental protections.The Plaintiff claimed that the Defendant published false reports and lead targeted media campaigns aimed at gouging the profits of the Plaintiff by spreading, “whopping lie[s]…misrepresenting Resolute’s harvesting as a major climate change risk.” The Plaintiff alleged eleven causes of action against the Defendant in the complaint, including claims for racketeering, conspiracy, defamation, tortious interference with prospective business relations, tortious interference with contractual relations, and trademark dilution. The Defendant filed five separate motions to dismiss or strike, alleging that the conduct at the heart of Resolute’s lawsuit consisted of speech and other advocacy that is protected by the First Amendment.
The Greenpeace Defendants sought $669,205.50 in attorney’s fees and $20,687.18 in costs. The Greenpeace Fund (“GP Fund”) sought $261,365.94 in fees and $368.95 in costs. These claims were denied without prejudice to a “renewed motion in which they exclude non-compensable time and explain their method for doing so.” The Court also ordered a reduction in the billing rates and time spent by attorneys and paralegals.
On April 22, 2020 the Court heard the Greenpeace Defendants’ renewed application for fees and costs of $545,572.36 in attorneys’ fees and $20,687.18 in costs and the GP Fund’s application for $262,171.26 in fees and $368.95 in costs.
The Court granted the Defendant’s motions to dismiss for failure to state a claim and granted the motions to strike as to all state claims.
Having noted that California law applied, the Court turned to the issues raised by the parties. First, the Court discussed the defamation claim and other state law claims, which the Defendant alleged failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. The Court noted that under California law, claims that are similar to defamation, such as tortious interference, which was the case here, are subject to the same First Amendment analysis required for defamation claims. To determine whether defamation is a viable claim, the Court first considered whether the Plaintiff was a public figure and would therefore be required to allege actual malice. There are two types of public figures; those that are public figures all the time, and limited purpose public figures which are not generally public figures but may be considered so for particular issues depending on their involvement. The Court found that the Plaintiff could not be considered a public figure all the time, but was a limited public figure. This was based on an analysis of three factors; “(i) whether a public controversy existed when the statements were made; (ii) whether the alleged defamation is related to the plaintiff’s participation in the controversy, and (iii) whether the plaintiff voluntarily injected itself into the controversy for the purpose of influencing the controversy’s ultimate resolution.” [Paras. 12-15] The Court easily found the first two factors met, but conducted a lengthier analysis for the third. The Court ultimately found that the third factor was met because of the widespread advertising campaign and the Plaintiff’s own claims that they were one of the largest producers of newspapers in the world. Therefore, the burden shifted to the Plaintiff to show actual malice on the part of the Defendant.
To prove actual malice, the statements must have been made with demonstrated knowledge of their falsity, or reckless disregard for the truth. This requires the Plaintiff to adequately plead facts showing that the Defendant acted with actual malice. Here, the Court found the Plaintiff did not meet its burden because it merely recited the requirements of actual malice without pointing to facts to support that assertion. The Court also explained that even if the complaint were better pleaded, the Plaintiff could not meet its burden because it did not identify any individual from Greenpeace who made these allegedly false statements. Further, the Court noted that notwithstanding the claims for dismissal for failure to state a claim, the claim would also fail because the statements cannot be provable as false and were therefore protected speech under the First Amendment. For example, Greenpeace’s hyperbolic statement calling Resolute a “forest destroyer” is not a statement that can be proven false, because any reasonable reader would know it was not a literal statement.
Next, the Court analyzed the RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) claims for fraud, which must meet a heightened pleading standard and pleaded with particularity. The Court found the complaint failed this requirement and also failed to show proximate cause and dismissed the claims accordingly.
The Court went on to consider the motions to strike and to determine the attorney fees. California’s Anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) law aims to protect lawsuits filed that are meritless and intended to chill first amendment speech rights by using lengthy and costly litigation. To prevail on a motion to strike based on the Anti-SLAPP statute the Defendant must show that the lawsuit arose from an act it made in the exercise of its freedom of speech rights. If the Defendant meets this test, the burden shifts to the Plaintiff to show there is a reasonable probability that it will prevail in the lawsuit. The Court easily found the Defendant met the first prong, on the basis that statements warning the public of potentially deceptive business practices, as Greenpeace was doing here, were protected. Secondly, the Court found that the Plaintiff could not meet its burden of showing it would probably prevail in the lawsuit because its other claims had been dismissed. Therefore, the Court granted the Defendant’s Motions to Strike and awarded attorney fees.
Finally, the Plaintiff argued that the Motions to Dismiss and the Motions to Strike were premature because discovery had not yet been conducted. The Court disagreed, finding further facts would not alter its analysis. Therefore, the Court granted the Motions to Dismiss and the Motions to Strike, but issued them without prejudice allowing the Plaintiff leave to amend.
On April 22, 2020 the Court heard the Defendant’s renewed application for attorney fees and costs. The Plaintiffs had contested the calculation of the attorney fee claimed by the Defendant by averring that the fee award must not include expenses which were incurred on non-compensable claims under the federal RICO lawsuit. It submitted that GP Fund should not be ‘entitled to recover for duplicative motion practice necessitated by its own failure to meet its burden of proof on its initial motion’. While rejecting the objections that the Defendant had not sufficiently reduced their claims, Judge Jon S Tigar noted a number of precedents that concluded that anti-SLAPP Fee awards include services for all proceedings “directly related” to the special motion to strike, as well as fees “addressing matters with factual or legal issues that are ‘inextricably intertwined’ with those issues raised in an anti-SLAPP motion.” Henry v. Bank of Am. Corp., No. C 09-0628 RS, 2010 WL 3324890, at *4 (N.D. Cal. Aug. 23,2010). “Work that is inextricably intertwined with an anti-SLAPP motion is compensable,” but “work performed on federal claims is not compensable.” Fallay, 2016 WL 879632, at *3.
Further, the Court concluded that the Defendant’s motions for fees and costs deserved to be granted. It noted that ‘Resolute cites no authority for this objection, but the Court has located two helpful cases. In Hirsch v. Compton Unified Sch. Dist., No. 12-CV-01269-RSWL(MRW), 2013 WL 1898553 (C.D. Cal. May 3, 2013), the plaintiff prevailed in an action under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. She then sought her attorney’s fees, which the Court awarded. The same attorney then filed a motion seeking fees in connection with her earlier, successful attorney’s fees motion. The court denied the second motion, holding that “receiving fees on fees on fees is too attenuated from the adjudication of the due process complaint to be reimbursable.” Id. at *6 (quoting Wright v. District of Columbia, 883 F. Supp. 2d 132, 134 (D.D.C. 2012)).’ Citing Ford Motor Credit Co. LLC v. Gilbert, No. 6:15-CV-01610-JR, 2017 WL 2766168, at *4 (D. Or. June 26, 2017), the Court decided to reduce GP Fund’s request by $12,875 as it declined to award fees for a successive fee application, because the renewed motion for fees was necessary only because the Court denied its first motion.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
This case expands expression by dismissing the claims for defamation and related state claims for failure to state claim, and for granting the motions to strike based on the California Anti-SLAPP statute. The Court takes this a step farther, noting that the hyperbolic statements made by Greenpeace are protected under the First Amendment as they cannot be proven false. As to statements on climate change and Greenpeace’s campaigns the Court explains that these are matters of public concern and debate, and the Court’s role is not to settle matters of scientific debate.
Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.
Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.
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