Monday, January 16, 2017

Court Allows Officer's Retaliation Lawsuit to Proceed Over Anti-SLAPP Motion

In Armendariz v. City of Burbank, the Second Appellate District held that a Burbank Police Officer’s retaliation lawsuit against his employer could go forward, despite the City’s attempt to strike the complaint on anti-SLAPP grounds. The Burbank Officer sued his employer alleging that they had terminated him due to his outspoken criticism of the Department’s leadership decisions. The City asserted that their internal affairs investigation against the Officer was protected by the first amendment and thus, the Officer’s lawsuit should be stricken.

Specifically the Officer asserted in his complaint that he complained to his department about unlawful arrest and citation quotas being imposed on officers. He also complained repeatedly and publicly about the Chief of Police’s management of the department and new disciplinary guidelines while acting in leadership positions with the Police Officer’s Association. He also complained about the Department's decision to fill senior positions within the Department with outside officers and without complying with civil service protocols. These statements were also made to the press. Not long after these statements and complaints, the Department initiated a series of internal affairs investigations into the Officer.

The general purpose of California’s anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) statute is to protect against lawsuits which are aimed at preventing or punishing protected first amendment speech. Part of this protection extends to statements made in connection with an “official proceeding authorized by law.” In recent years, cities and counties have been asserting that their internal affairs investigations are such protected proceedings. When employees sue their employers after being terminated due to an internal affairs investigation, employers often try to use anti-SLAPP to shut the lawsuit down.

In order to strike claims in a lawsuit using anti-SLAPP, a defendant must show that the claims of the plaintiff arise out of protected activity. Once demonstrated, the plaintiff may only continue its case if it can establish that its claims have minimal merit. In Armendariz, the court made clear that anti-SLAPP can only be used to strike the individual claims to which the protection applies; it does not destroy the entire complaint if it contains other claims.

In this case, the court decided that the Officer’s claims of retaliation did contain allegations relating to protected activity (the internal affairs investigation). Thus, statements or writings generated in connection with the investigation were protected activity within the meaning of the anti-SLAPP statute. However, the Officer was able to establish that his claims had at least minimal merit and likelihood of success. This was due partly to the City’s almost complete failure on appeal to address the Officer’s arguments and evidence submitted, offering only a single paragraph of bare argument in response to over 220 pages of evidence.

The City offered several other token defenses such as failure to exhaust administrative remedies, governmental immunity, and litigation privilege, all of which were denied. Governmental immunity did not apply because while a government entity is protected from vicarious liability from its employee's actions, this protection does not apply when the Officer is seeking to hold the City directly responsible for its violations of the law. Litigation privilege, which precludes liability arising from a publication made in a judicial proceeding, did not apply because the Officer’s claims arose out of the City’s actions of termination, and not necessarily from its statements during the IA process. 

Accordingly, the court allowed the Officer’s lawsuit to go forward and permitted him to recover his costs on appeal.  Although the officer's suit survived the anti-SLAPP motion, this case also illustrates the difficulties presented by the anti-SLAPP statute when challenging adverse employment actions arising from internal affairs investigations.