DC Circuit holds anti-SLAPP statute does not apply in federal court diversity case

The DC Circuit held this morning that the DC anti-SLAPP statute does not apply in a federal court diversity case because “Federal Rules 12 and 56 answer the same question as the Anti-SLAPP Act’s special motion to dismiss provision” (the Erie issue).  This is obviously big news as it provides an obvious opportunity for forum shopping, with plaintiffs filing suit in federal court, where the statute is now inapplicable, instead of Superior Court, where the statute applies.

According to the DC Circuit’s opinion, Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12 and 56 address “the circumstances under which a court must dismiss a case before trial,” meaning that the DC anti-SLAPP statute, which imposes a higher burden, cannot apply:

Under the Federal Rules, a plaintiff is generally entitled to trial if he or she meets the Rules 12 and 56 standards to overcome a motion to dismiss or for summary judgment.  But the DC Anti-SLAPP Act nullifies that entitlement in certain cases.  Under the D.C. Anti-SLAPP Act, the plaintiff is not able to get to trial just by meeting those Rule 12 and 56 standards.  The D.C. Anti-SLAPP Act, in other words, conflicts with the Federal Rules by setting up an additional hurdle a plaintiff must jump over to get to trial.

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In short, unlike the D.C. Anti-SLAPP Act, the Federal Rules do not require a plaintiff to show a likelihood of success on the merits in order to avoid pre-trial dismissal.  Under Shady Grove, therefore, we may not apply the D.C. Anti-SLAPP Act’s special motion to dismiss provision.

Although the defendants argued that the standard under the anti-SLAPP act mirrors Rule 56, so that the anti-SLAPP statute does not conflict with the Federal Rules, the DC Circuit rejects this argument as contrary to the intent of the DC Council, and the language of the statute.  The Court also rejects the defendants’ argument that the statute is akin to qualified immunity, holding that principle does not change the fact that the “procedural mechanism” for resolving the motion is different, and thus barred.

Most notably, the DC Circuit acknowledges that other courts, including the First, Fifth, and Ninth Circuits, have all held that anti-SLAPP statutes apply in federal court, notwithstanding Rules 12 and 56.  It disagrees with these decisions, explaining that they are “not persuasive.”

Notwithstanding the DC Circuit’s agreement with Abbas that the DC anti-SLAPP statute does not apply in a federal court diversity case, the Court affirms dismissal of the Complaint on the basis that the questions posed in the article were not factual representations.  It thus dismisses the Complaint under Rule 12(b)(6) – a motion that the defendants made below, but which the District Court held was moot when it granted the anti-SLAPP motion.

Takeaways:  from a practical standpoint, as stated above, any defamation plaintiff that has the ability to file suit in DC federal court should do so because it will not be faced with an anti-SLAPP motion.  This is a troubling concept, as we are likely to see more forum shopping of the type that we have already seen in other cases.

From a legal standpoint, the DC Circuit’s opinion sets up a direct circuit split with the First Circuit’s Godin v. Schencks opinion, which came after Shady Grove and held that Federal Rules 12 and 56 were not sufficiently broad as to prohibit application of the Maine anti-SLAPP statute in federal court.  Stay tuned.

Three Takeaways from the DC Superior Court’s Order granting C4ADS’s anti-SLAPP motion

I have previously blogged about the defamation lawsuit between the Center for Advanced Defense Studies (C4ADS) and a Ukraine-based shipping company, Kaalbye Shipping International, in which Kaalbye alleged that that a C4ADS report about the shipments of Russian and Ukrainian arms defamed it.  On Tuesday, the DC Superior Court granted C4ADS’s anti-SLAPP motion in a lengthy Opinion, concluding that Kaalbye had not provided evidence of damages and that the challenge statements were protected opinion, not defamatory or not made with actual malice.  Here are three takeaways 

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“Its All About the Benjamins”

When Puff Daddy (n/k/a Diddy; f/k/a P. Diddy, Sean Combs, Puffy) rapped “Its all about the Benjamins,” I doubt he was thinking about the Forras v. Rauf case.  (For background on the case, see prior posts here, and here, and here).  But, now that the DC Circuit briefing is complete in that case, it is clear that the appeal really is all about the Benjamins!  Let me explain.  

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“The Waiting Is the Hardest Part”

As we approach the fourth anniversary of the date the DC anti-SLAPP statute became effective, parties in several high-profile cases know exactly what Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers meant when they sang that “the waiting is the hardest part.”  As I write, they wait for decisions in cases that have the potential to significantly – and materially – alter the DC legal landscape. 

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Forras Case Finally Reaches DC Circuit

After a brief – and unsuccessful – return to the federal district court, the appellants in the Forras v. Rauf case (Vincent Forras and Larry Klayman) have filed their opening brief in the DC Circuit

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Do Anti-SLAPP Statutes Violate the Plaintiff’s “Access to Courts”

At a wonderful panel earlier this month at the ABA Communications Forum in Arizona, leading media attorneys discussed anti-SLAPP lawsuits and developments from around the country.  While courts elsewhere are grappling with many of the same issues as in DC (is there a right to immediate appellate review from the denial of an anti-SLAPP motion; in what circumstances should discovery be allowed; what is the applicable standard in deciding whether to grant an anti-SLAPP motion), I learned of a new argument that has been advanced in the “other” Washington. 

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Fits & Starts in Forras v. Rauf case

Remember Forras v. Rauf?  In May, DC District Court Judge Rothstein granted the defendants’ anti-SLAPP motion, and off the parties went to the DC Circuit.  Or so we thought.

After filing a notice of appeal, the plaintiffs moved the district court to reconsider its decision, arguing that the defendants waited too long before filing their anti-SLAPP motion. (In my post on the district court’s decision, here, I explained why, under the unique circumstances presented by the case, I believed the district court’s decision to excuse this delay was correct). 

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Reflections on the Mann v. CEI Oral Argument

Two days before Thanksgiving, your intrepid blogger joined approximately 60-70 others in the DC Court of Appeals’ ceremonial courtroom to watch the Mann v. CEI oral argument. The panel was comprised of Judges Ruiz, Beckwith and Easterly (who authored the Court’s decision in Burke v. Doe).  Here are my impressions. 

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Temperatures Rise in Mann Libel Suit

It has been a few months since I wrote about Michael Mann’s libel suit against National Review, the Competitive Enterprise Institute and two contributors.  During that time, the parties have been very busy in both the Superior Court and DC Court of Appeals.  Here is what you might have missed.

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Reflections on the Abbas v. Foreign Policy Group Argument

I attended the Abbas v. Foreign Policy Group argument at the DC Circuit last week. (You can listen to the argument here).  Here are my impressions.

I agree with Politico that it seems unlikely that the Circuit will reverse the district court’s dismissal of the complaint as none of the three members of the panel quarreled with the district court’s reasoning.  Rather, the central question in the appeal now appears to be whether the DC Circuit needs to conclusively decide whether the DC anti-SLAPP statute applies in federal court (the “Erie” issue) or whether it could sidestep that issue and instead affirm on the basis that the Complaint failed to state a claim under Rule 12(b)(6).

While Abbas’s counsel urged the Court to decide, once and for all, whether the DC anti-SLAPP statute applies in federal court, Foreign Policy Group’s counsel suggested the Court had three options: (a) hold that the statute applies in federal court, notwithstanding the Court’s obvious concerns that the statute’s different rules (including that it limits discovery, potentially allows a court to resolve disputed issues, and requires dismissal unless the non-movant shows he is “likely to prevail”) appeared to be inconsistent with the Federal Rules; (b) find that, in this case, dismissal under the anti-SLAPP statute was proper because there were no disputed issues and Abbas did not request discovery; or (c) affirm under Rule 12(b)(6), in which case Foreign Policy Group would return to the district court and seek fees, likely resulting in the parties returning to the Circuit on the Erie issue.

My guess is that the Court is going to take option two: conclude that, because Abbas did not request discovery and did not identify any disputed issues, there was no obstacle to applying the DC anti-SLAPP statute in federal court in this case, and affirming on that basis.  The Court will leave, for another day, whether the anti-SLAPP statute can be applied when it would require the court to decide disputed issues or where discovery is requested/denied.

One moment of levity: during oral argument, Foreign Policy Group’s attorney argued that, to avoid a conflict with the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the DC anti-SLAPP statute’s discovery and “likely to prevail” standards could be interpreted to mirror the standards in Rules 12 and 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, despite the fact that the DC anti-SLAPP statute uses different language. Judge Srinivasan suggested this was a “heroic” reading of the statute, which generated laughter in the courtroom.