Thursday, October 17, 2019

Starview Property v. Lee (Cal. Ct. App. - Oct. 17, 2019)

It's a lawsuit between neighbors.  So you just know it's going to be overlitigated compared to the economic value of the dispute in question.

Perhaps even more so when, as here, the next door neighbors live in Brentwood.

Hence why Justice Bigelow begins the opinion by saying "In this acrimonious dispute between neighbors . . . ."  Yep.  I would expect nothing else.

The lawsuit also has a meaningful holding.  So it's not just important to the residents of Glenmere Way.

A long time ago, back in 1958, one neighbor gives an easement to another neighbor to use his driveway to access the property.  They agree that if the parties need to fill out any documents to confirm this easement or make it run with the land, everyone will sign them.

Fast forward to 2016.  Someone new buys one of the properties, and wants to remodel it.  He seeks permits from the City to do so.  The City says the owner's get the other neighbor's signature as well since the parking spaces for the property will be accessed via the easement.

But the other neighbor -- probably upset at the new owner's remodel -- decides to hold up the new owner.  He refuses to sign unless the new neighbor gives him indemnity, construction, releases, five thousand dollars, etc.  Nice.

The new neighbor is bummed/upset.  He ends up installing a car lift system on his new home, thus avoiding the need to get the neighbor's signature.

Then he sues the neighbor.

There's a variety of causes of action alleged in the original complaint.  And the thing gets litigated in the manner you'd think.  Massively aggressively.

Then, after over a year of litigation, likely somewhat close to trial, the plaintiff (and, particularly, their lawyer) decide to "clean things up" in the pleadings as well as to include new causes of action that they hadn't thought of (or decided to not yet file) when they filed their original complaint.

That's a somewhat common practice.  Sure, they probably should have filed the new causes of action in the first place.  But, for whatever reason, they didn't.  So they want to file them now.

But here's the problem:  Defendants use the amended complaint as an opportunity to file an anti-SLAPP motion.  Which they do 55 days after the amended complaint is filed.  Thus leading to all the advantages of such a motion:  hearing on the merits, potential fee exposure, automatic appeal and stay even if you lose the motion, etc.

Ultimately resulting in today's published opinion by the Court of Appeal.

The trial court denied the motion as untimely, reasoning that since the new causes of action all arose from the same set of facts alleged in the original complaint, the defendants should have filed the anti-SLAPP motion then (or within 60 days thereof), not a year-plus thereafter.

But the Court of Appeal reverses.

You can see the reasoning behind the trial court's decision.  Let's say you protest at a shopping mall, and the store owners sue you (reasonably or not) for trespass, which caused them damages since they had to shut down the store and lost $5000 in business.  You decide not too file an anti-SLAPP motion to get out of the suit.  Then, before trial, the store's lawyer realizes that plaintiff's conduct probably also counts as wrongful interference with prospective economic advantage, so plaintiff amends its complaint to include that new cause of action -- one that arises on the exact same set of facts that have already been asserted.  And, boom, a year in, suddenly there's an anti-SLAPP motion.  On its face, that seems silly.  It's the same lawsuit.  Just a new additional legal theory.  If you wanted to claim that your conduct was constitutionally protected, and hence that you're being SLAPPed, you should have done so when you were first sued.  A year later is too late.

Makes sense.

But so does the Court of Appeal's rejection of that theory.  Not surprisingly, the Court of Appeal relies a lot on precedent -- or at least upon its particular reading of that (not-perfectly-clear) set of authorities.  But it also relies on its own version of common sense.  Because let's say a plaintiff initially sues you for X set of facts, with Y cause of action, and that cause of action arises out of conduct protected by the anti-SLAPP statute, but you think:  "Well, shucks, I could file an anti-SLAPP motion, but you know what, Y cause of action really is true, so I'd lose."  So you don't file the motion.  But then, a year later, on the same set of facts, plaintiffs add absurd causes of action like Z and Q and EEE.  You can see why you'd now want to file your anti-SLAPP motion.  To get out of those new meritless causes of action.  New (meritless) causes of action that you couldn't have gotten out of at the beginning since, back then, they didn't even exist (i.e., weren't asserted).

Hence the Court of Appeal's rule.  When the amended complaint adds new causes of action, you can file an anti-SLAPP motion to strike those new causes of action (but not the old ones).  Even if a year has passed in the litigation.  And even if the new causes of action arise out of the exact same set of facts previously asserted in the original complaint.

So the neighbors get to go back to the trial court for Round II.  In which the trial court will now resolve the merits of the defendant's new anti-SLAPP motion.

Undoubtedly ultimately leading to Round III, when the losing party on that motion (which I suspect will be the defendants) appeals.  Likely followed thereafter by Round IV, in which the Court of Appeal decides the merits of the appeal and then remands the case for trial on the original causes of action plus whatever remains of the new causes of action  Finally resulting in a trial on the merits in Round V.

Sometime around 2023.

What a joy.