Judge Wilkins, presiding over the 3M v. Boulter case, today became the first federal court judge to issue an opinion on the applicability of the anti-SLAPP statute in federal court. Previously, Judge King of the Superior Court had granted an anti-SLAPP motion in Lehan v. Fox and incorporated oral rulings into his order, and federal court Judge Leon denied an anti-SLAPP motion in Sherrod v. Breitbart, but without an opinion.
Judge Wilkins’ 55-page opinion denies the anti-SLAPP motions filed by the defendants, but grants their Rule 12(b)(6) motions in part and dismisses some of the claims in the complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted.
Of most importance here, the court holds that the anti-SLAPP statute is inapplicable in federal court under Erie. Relying on the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Shady Grove Orthopedic Assocs. v. Allstate Ins. Co., where the Supreme Court held that a New York law imposing certain prohibitions in class actions was inapplicable in federal court because it conflicts with applicable federal procedural law, the court holds that the anti-SLAPP statute cannot apply in federal court because it similarly conflicts with federal procedural law.
Specifically, the court held, Rules 12 and 56 generally govern when motions are to be granted in federal court. Because the anti-SLAPP statute upsets those mechanism (by, for example, allowing a defendant to attach papers to its motion, staying discovery and requiring dismissal unless a plaintiff can show a likelihood of success on the merits), the court holds that it cannot apply in federal court: “[t]here is no question that the special motion to dismiss under the Anti-SLAPP Act operates greatly to a defendant’s benefit by altering the procedure otherwise set forth in Rules 12 and 56 for determining a challenge to the merits of a plaintiff’s claim and by setting a higher standard upon the plaintiff to avoid dismissal. . . . [T]his Court holds that it squarely attempts to answer the same question that Rules 12 and 56 cover and, therefore, cannot be applied in a federal court sitting in diversity.”
The court rejected the defendants’ arguments that the anti-SLAPP act is similar to other local rules and procedures that co-exist with the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, concluding that “[d]efendants cannot cite any examples under Rule 7 or the local rules that even resemble a challenge to the sufficiency or merits of a plaintiff’s claim prior to trial.”
In addition to holding that the anti-SLAPP statute is inapplicable in federal court under Erie, the court cites an alternative basis for its ruling. Because a successful anti-SLAPP motion requires the court to dismiss the complaint with prejudice, Judge Wilkins holds, “[t]his is a direct conflict with the Federal Rules, which do not mandate dismissal with prejudice in every circumstance, and which in fact vest a district court with discretion to determine whether a dismissal under Rule 12(b) would operate as an adjudication on the merits.” (emphasis in original).
The court’s opinion expressly disagrees with the First Circuit’s opinion in Godin v. Schencks, which held that Maine’s anti-SLAPP statute was applicable in federal diversity cases because Rules 12 and 56 were not so broad as to cover the same issues, and the Ninth Circuit’s opinion in United States v. Lockheed Missiles & Space Co. According to Judge Wilkins, both opinions essentially applied an improper analysis and overlooked the breath of Rules 12 and 56 in finding that they could co-exist with the state statute.
The opinion acknowledges the arguments of the defendants and the District of Columbia that, because the anti-SLAPP statute provides substantive protections, it applies in federal court, but finds that it need not decide this “murky” question because: (a) “Rules 12 and 56 answer the question in dispute” and (b) in any event, the anti-SLAPP statute mandates a “procedure” for enforcing any such substantive right (which is what conflicts with Rules 12 and 56).
Addressing other federal court opinions, Judge Wilkins holds that, to the extent they held that the state statute applied in federal court because it operated essentially the same as Rules 12 and 56, those cases are distinguishable (because of his finding that the DC anti-SLAPP statute operates differently than Rules 12 and 56). To the extent other federal courts held that the state statute operates differently than the Federal Rules, but still applied in federal court, “this Court respectfully disagrees with their holdings as contrary to the law of this Circuit.”
The opinion was not a total loss for SLAPP movants. The court did not accept 3M’s argument that the anti-SLAPP statute violates the Home Rule. That dispute will have to wait for another day. Finally, although holding that the defendants could not move under the anti-SLAPP statute in federal court, Judge Wilkins nevertheless held that 3M’s claims for: (a) intimidation (under English law); (b) tortious interference with contract and existing/prospective business advantage; (c) injurious falsehood and business disparagement; (d) breach of fiduciary duty; (e) aiding and abetting; and (f) civil conspiracy failed to state a claim and must be dismissed.