Missouri court denies anti-SLAPP motion
By:   //  Legal

The Circuit Court of Jackson County, Missouri at Kansas City denied an anti-SLAPP motion that leaves the question of whether free speech has been suppressed.

The judge ruled against Jason Hartman, Platinum Properties Investor Network, Inc., Veritas News, LLC, and the Hartman Media Company’s special motion to strike counterclaims with suggestions in support.

An SLAPP motion is a lawsuit that is intended to censor, intimidate, and silence critics by burdening them with the cost of a legal defense until they abandon their criticism or opposition. SLAPP is the acronym for strategic lawsuit against public participation.

An anti-SLAPP motion does the opposite. It asks that free speech prevail.

Plaintiffs Results Real Estate Services, LLC, Results Property Management, LLC, Results Investments, LLC, Metrowide Services, LLC, Quentin Kearney, and Ken Logan (“Results  defendants”) and Hartman plaintiffs were at odds over a video Hartman posted online questioning whether Results Property Management had properly billed him for work performed at property Hartman owned.

Hartman plaintiffs argued that Results Investments’ counterclaims are a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (“SLAPP”) and California’s Anti-SLAPP statute (Ca. C.Civ. Pro. § 425.16) requires dismissal of Results Defendants’ claims. Results Defendants argued that Missouri’s Anti-SLAPP statute (Mo. Rev. Stat. § 537.528) applies to this matter, and that under Missouri law its counterclaims are not subject to dismissal.

Case Background

Results  brought multiple common law tort claims against Hartman plaintiffs, court documents state. “Highly summarized, these claims allege that Plaintiff/Counterclaim defendant Jason Hartman’s made intentionally false statements about Results Defendants and their businesses  and business practices, and Hartman published and distributed these defamatory statements over the Internet. Results Defendants claim these tortious acts have defamed their reputation and interfered with business relationships.”

Missouri Law Applies

At issue for Judge W. Brent Powell was whether California or Missouri had jurisdiction. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press cites Missouri law as applying  to “[a]ny action seeking money damages against a person for conduct or speech undertaken or made in connection with a public hearing or public meeting, in a quasi-judicial proceeding before a tribunal or decision-making body of the state or any political subdivision of the state.” Mo. Rev. Stat. 537.528 (2011). A public meeting in a quasi-judicial proceeding includes any meeting held by a state or local governmental entity, including meetings of or presentations before state, county, city, town or village councils, planning commissions or review boards.

If the court grants the SLAPP defendant’s motion to dismiss, it will impose costs and attorney fees on the other side, assuming the defendant complied with certain filing deadlines. Conversely, the court will award costs and attorney fees to the plaintiff if it finds that the motion to dismiss was frivolous or brought solely to delay the proceedings. Either party is entitled to expedited review of the court’s decision on the motion to dismiss.

A forum state will choose the applicable law according to its own conflict of law principles. When determining which state’s law applies to a tort action, Missouri courts apply the  “most significant relationship” test set out in Section 145 of the Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws, Powell opined.

Section 145 states:

(1) The rights and liabilities of the parties with respect to an issue in tort are determined by the local law of the state which, with respect to that issue, has the most significant relationship to the occurrence and the parties under the principles stated in Section 6.

(2) Contacts to be taken into account in applying the principles of Section 6 to determine the law applicable to an issue include:

(a) the place where the injury occurred,

(b) the place where the conduct causing the injury occurred,

(c) the domicile, residence, nationality, place of incorporation and place of business of the parties, and

(d) the place where the relationship, if any, between the parties is

centered

These contacts are to be evaluated according to their relative importance with

respect to the particular issue.

Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws § 145 (1971).

It is not solely the number of contacts which determines the choice of law but which

state, “when those contacts are considered in the perspective of Restatement (Second) Section 6

choice of law principles . . . has the most significant relationship to the occurrence and parties,

and so is entitled to have its law determine the particular issue.” Nelson v. Hall, 684 S.W.2d 350,

360 (Mo. Ct. App. 1984). The choice of law principles under Section 6 are:

(a) the needs of the interstate and international systems,

(b) the relevant policies of the forum,

(c) the relevant policies of other interested states and the relative interests of those states

in the determination of the particular issue,

(d) the protection of justified expectations,

(e) the basic policies underlying the particular field of law,

(f) certainty, predictability and uniformity of result, and

(g) ease in the determination and application of the law to be applied.

“With regard to the factors listed in § 145 of the Restatement, the Court finds that in this case there are contacts to both California and Missouri (and, perhaps, even other locations), but Missouri is the jurisdiction with the most significant relationship to the occurrences and the parties. The § 145 factors are as follows:

(a) The place where the injury occurred. Results Defendants all either reside or operate in Missouri; all injuries alleged with regard to this allegedly tortious activity are centered in Missouri.

(b) The place where the conduct causing the injury occurred. The “place where the conduct causing the injury occurred” is difficult to determine in this case, as it involves Internet speech. It is unclear from what location Hartman published his blog – it has been alleged that itwas published in California, Arizona, Croatia, or even another unknown location. The most Hartman will concede, is that “the most likely place of publication is California because Hartman  and his entities are located there.” Plaintiff’/Counterclaim defendant Jason Hartman and Third-Party defendants’ Suggestions in Response to Results Property Management et al.’s Opposition to Special Motion to Strike Defendants’ Counterclaims.”

Powell wrote,  “While this factor in an Anti-SLAPP analysis is important, the uncertainty of the location of the conduct causing the injury does not allow this Court to afford it much weight. The majority of the parties are located in Missouri. While there are parties also located in California, Arizona, Wyoming, and New York, the most significant relationship of the occurrences of this case with respect to this factor is found with Missouri.”

 

He continued, “The relevant policies of the forum. Missouri has enacted an Anti-SLAPP statute, § 537.528.1 R.S.Mo., designed to protect conduct and speech made in connection with a public hearing or public meeting. By enacting this statute, Missouri has created a policy by which speakers under its jurisdiction shall be afforded extra protection against lawsuits merely aimed at stifling speech and conduct related to public participation. The relevant policies of other interested states and the relative interests of those states in the determination of the particular issue. California and Missouri have both drafted Anti-SLAPP statutes in their jurisdictions, indicating a desire to discourage strategic lawsuits which would frustrate public participation. California’s statute is designed to offer broader protection to its litigants, applying to conduct “arising from any act of that person in furtherance of the person’s right of petition or free speech under the United States Constitution or the California Constitution in connection with a public issue…”

Missouri’s statute is drawn more narrowly, applying only to “conduct or speech undertaken or made in connection with a public hearing or public meeting, in a quasi-judicial proceeding before a tribunal or decision-making body of the state or any political subdivision of the state…”  The relevant policies in California and Missouri, though they have the same core goal, have approached the problem in two different ways. California obviously wishes to give those under its jurisdiction broader protections with regard to public participation and free speech more generally. Missouri, on the other hand, has narrowed the application of its Anti-SLAPP statute to target public participation in public hearings or meetings.

 

 

 

While Hartman Plaintiffs initiated this lawsuit in Missouri utilizing Missouri forum and laws, they are now arguing that a California statute should apply to this action and the counterclaims brought by Results Defendants should be dismissed,” Powell ruled.  “Taking all of these factors into consideration, the Court finds that Missouri substantive law is most applicable.”

Powell concluded that the state with the most significant contacts in Missouri. He applied the Missouri Anti-SLAPP statute to the motion to dismiss.

 

 

Powell ruled that Hartman’s special motion should only be granted if the speech at issue was made in connection with a public hearing or public meeting. “Though the speech at issue is varied and voluminous, there is no indication that Hartman Plaintiffs’ speech or conduct was made in connection with any public hearing, public meeting or other quasi-judicial proceeding. Therefore, the special motion to dismiss is denied”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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