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Appellate Court Slams Scofflaw Tenant for Bogus Anti-SLAPP Motion

This case pitted the competing goals of two very important statutory schemes.  On the one hand, an unlawful detainer action provides landlords a means to evict a tenant in a short, simplified proceeding where the only issue to be tried is whether the tenant is in lawful possession of the premises.  The availability of such an expedited procedure is hugely important to landlords, especially given that landlords are prohibited from using “self-help” to remove a tenant.

 

This case pitted the competing goals of two very important statutory schemes.  On the one hand, an unlawful detainer action provides landlords a means to evict a tenant in a short, simplified proceeding where the only issue to be tried is whether the tenant is in lawful possession of the premises.  The availability of such an expedited procedure is hugely important to landlords, especially given that landlords are prohibited from using “self-help” to remove a tenant.

 

On the other hand, the anti-SLAPP statutory scheme is designed to deter the filing of non-meritorious lawsuits which are aimed at thwarting a party’s valid exercise of protected activity, such as the exercise of free speech or the filing of a lawsuit to remedy a wrong.  When invoked by a defendant in a proper case, a plaintiff must present evidence at the very beginning of a case to establish the probable validity of their case or face dismissal.  Moreover, discovery is stayed pending resolution of the motion.

 

In what may have seemed like clever legal maneuvering at the time, the tenant in this case (who was behind in rent and presumably knew that eviction was inevitable) filed an action claiming its landlord was liable for allowing another tenant to monopolize parking spaces in a shopping center.  After the landlord filed a separate unlawful detainer (eviction) action, the tenant responded by filing an anti-SLAPP motion to strike which argued that the landlord’s unlawful detainer action was filed to thwart tenant’s exercise of its free speech rights.

 

The trial court denied the motion to strike and sanctioned the tenant almost $3,500 for filing a frivolous motion, finding that the purpose of the landlord’s unlawful detainer action was to address the tenant’s failure to pay rent and common area charges rather than to thwart the tenant’s public participation in a protected activity.  The Court of Appeal agreed that while the tenant beat the landlord to the courthouse by filing its action first, the mere timing of the two lawsuits was not dispositive.  The court looked to the California Supreme Court’s opinion in Navellier v. Sletten, (2002) 29 Cal. 4th 82, which provides that the mere fact that an action was filed after, or even triggered by, protected activity does not establish that the action arose from that activity as required by the anti-SLAPP statute.

 

Applying the holding of Navellier, the Court of Appeal concluded that “the unlawful detainer complaint arose from Tenant’s unprotected activity in allegedly failing to pay rent and CAM charges, rather than from its protected petitioning activity in filing the prior lawsuit.”  According to both the trial court and appellate court, this was not even a close call.

 

This decision is yet another reminder that, as powerful as an anti-SLAPP motion to strike can be, discretion must be used in bringing such motions because they are only proper in cases which truly arise from protected activity.

Olive Properties v. Coolwaters Enterprises, Inc. (2015) 241 Cal.App.4t 1169

(03/16)