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Monday, March 14, 2022

What is a SLAPP law?

The Southern District of New York denied Donald Trump's motion for leave to amend to add an affirmative defense and counterclaim under New York's amended (and-retroactive?) anti-SLAPP law. I will test on this case this year or next, because it discusses several elements of denying leave to amend--undue delay, dilatory motive, futility. The court called out Trump's incompetent newish attorney for insisting that leave should not be denied for futility because they should not have to defend every use of the SLAPP at this stage; that argument ignored (or did not understand) that futility applies a dismissal analysis at the amendment stage--the court explores whether an amendment can survive dismissal and if it cannot, the court denies leave. The case also raises a nice Erie question--Judge Rakoff in Palin held the SLAPP law is retroactive but an intermediate state court held it is not; what is a district court to do going forward?

For this post, I want to focus on the court's analysis of the SLAPP law as it affects the futility analysis, because I think people are confused as to what a SLAPP law is and does. Trump wanted to add an affirmative defense and a counterclaim under the SLAPP law. The court rejected both. I think it reached the right conclusion for the wrong reason as to the former and may have been wrong as to the latter.

Defense

The court rejected the affirmative defense as futile because the SLAPP does not create an affirmative defense. It does not involve new facts and does not "knock[] plaintiff out of court if all the allegations of her complaint are true." Instead, it provides for recovery of fees for success and changes procedures applied to state-law actions.

But this seems to hang on semantics. We typically think of two types of defenses--failure of proof (the plaintiff cannot prove her alleged, disputed facts) and affirmative (new facts preclude liability if the plaintiff proves her facts). The SLAPP law does require new facts--the speech sued on must have some "connection with an issue of public interest" to trigger special procedural protections or to make attorney's fees available; although it is not clear Trump's lawyer pleaded them in the proposed amended answer (a distinct basis for futility), they are additional facts. Without those new facts, the SLAPP law still provides some type of defense--a way to avoid liability for a claim.

If the court is correct that SLAPP is not an affirmative defense to be pleaded in an answer, how or when does a defendant raise an anti-SLAPP law? Perhaps the law comes into play by providing the legal standards and mechanisms when Trump moves to dismiss. It is not a distinct defense, but the legal standard governing dismissal. I am not sure that is right. A party can assert failure to state a claim as an affirmative defense in a pleading rather than via motion; the SLAPP law provides a different standard for deciding a plaintiff  fails to state a claim. We might think about it this way--would/could Trump have pleaded the SLAPP law as a defense in an original responsive pleading? If a defendant planned to ask for anti-SLAPP attorney's fees (which are available in federal court) should he prevail, would he include that among the defenses pleaded in the answer? If so, it is a defense that can be raised in an amended responsive pleading.

If the court is right, this decision does not hurt Trump. Without this new answer, he can move to dismiss the complaint (coming post-answer it would be a motion for judgment on the pleadings, but same difference for these purposes) and argue that SLAPP procedures apply to that motion. He will lose on that, as explained below; but he will be able to at least attempt to assert the law not as an affirmative defense but as the legal standard for attacking the validity of the claim.

If the court is wrong and the SLAPP law is a defense that can be raised in a pleading, the court correctly denied leave as futile for a different reason--the SLAPP law's procedural provisions (other than the fees provision) do not apply in federal court, where FRCP 12 and 56 provide the standards and mechanisms for pre-trial review and rejection of a state claim. The amendment would be futile because the new defense would not survive a Rule 12(f) motion to strike an insufficient defense.*

[*] Futility generally applies to new claims that cannot survive a motion to dismiss. But an affirmative defense, which involves new facts and new law in the same way as a claim, can be futile if it cannot survive a motion to strike (the counterpart to dismissal for a defense).

Counterclaim

The court held amendment was futile as to the counterclaim because the SLAPP law does not apply in federal court, so the counterclaim would not survive a motion to dismiss. This was wrong.

New York's amended SLAPP law allows a defamation defendant to recover compensatory and punitive damages on a showing of improper purpose in bringing the defamation action; it is analogous to the tort of abuse of process (which often is asserted as a counterclaim to a specious tort claim). A counterclaim cannot be swept aside on Erie/Hanna grounds. Used as a counterclaim, the SLAPP law does not dictate the manner and means for adjudicating substantive defamation rights in Carroll's claim (the manner and means derive from the FRCP); it provides a distinct set of state-law rights and remedies for Trump for a distinct injury. Regardless of the counterclaim's chance of success, it is different than ordinary procedural rules for defending the defamation claim and cannot be deemed categorically unavailable in federal court.

Again, I am criticizing the court's reasoning more than its conclusion to deny leave, which was probably correct. It might have found the amendment futile (and denied leave to amend) by focusing on other reasons  the counterclaim would not survive a motion to dismiss. Perhaps the SLAPP law is not retroactive; perhaps the proposed amended pleading did not allege facts showing improper purpose. Alternatively, the court may have rightly denied leave for reasons other than futility, such as undue delay--Trump waited more than 14 months before seeking leave without good explanation. But the court's reasoning in rejecting amendment is problematic.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on March 14, 2022 at 09:31 AM in Civil Procedure, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process | Permalink

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