Court of Appeals Clarifies Procedures and Standards for Deciding a Special Motion to Dismiss Under Anti-SLAPP Act
On December 10, 2020, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals decided Saudi American Public Relations Affairs Committee v. Institute for Gulf Affairs, 18-CV-1296, slip op. (D.C. Dec. 10, 2020), in which it reviewed a trial court’s decision to summarily deny a special motion to dismiss under the District of Columbia Anti-Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation Act (“Anti-SLAPP Act”), D.C. Code §§ 16-5501 to -5505.
By way of background, “[a] strategic lawsuit against public participation, or SLAPP, is an action filed by one side of a political or public policy debate aimed to punish or prevent the expression of opposing points of view.” Slip op. at 3 (internal quotation marks omitted). The Anti-SLAPP Act “provides a party defending against a SLAPP with procedural tools to protect [itself] from ‘meritless’ litigation.” Id. One of those tools is “a special motion to dismiss a complaint in order to bring an expedited end to the litigation.” Id. (citing D.C. Code § 16-5502). In making the motion, “the defendant must ‘make a prima facie showing that the claim at issue arises from an act in furtherance of the right of advocacy on issues of public interest.'” Id. (quoting D.C. Code § 16-5502(b); brackets in original). If the defendant makes this showing, “the burden shifts to the plaintiff, who must demonstrate that [its] claim is likely to succeed on the merits.” Id. at 4 (internal quotation marks, ellipse, and brackets omitted). The trial court is required to hold an “‘expedited hearing'” on a special motion to dismiss. Id. (quoting D.C. Code § 16-5502(b)). A decision to deny the motion is “immediately appealable.” Id.
In considering the trial court’s decision to summarily deny the special motion to dismiss, the Court considered whether the trial court satisfied the statute’s hearing requirement. Id. at 8-15. It held that the statute requires the trial court “to conduct a real-time proceeding (attended in person or remotely accessed) at which the parties may present arguments or evidence to a judge, as is appropriate under the circumstances.” Id. at 9. The Court ruled that the trial court erred in deciding the special motion to dismiss based on the papers submitted by the parties without conducting a live hearing. Id. at 11 & 15.
The Court also considered whether the trial court incorrectly decided that the defendants failed to satisfy the statutory requirement that they “make a prima facie showing that the claim at issue arises from an act in furtherance of the right of advocacy on issues of public interest.” D.C. Code § 16-5502(b). The relevant acts in this case were statements. The Court recognized that “although the [statute’s definition of ‘issue of public interest’] expressly carves out ‘private interests,’ it does so in a manner that suggests that intermixing public and private interests is not disqualifying.” Slip op. at 17. It held that “[a] statement may still relate to an issue of public interest so long as it is not ‘directed primarily’ at a private interest.” Id. It ruled that the subject statements “did not reflect a purely or even ‘primarily’ private dispute, and were sufficiently connected to several issues of public interest.” Id. at 20 (internal citation omitted). Accordingly, it ruled that the trial court erred in deciding that the defendants had failed to make the required prima facie showing and that the trial court should have proceeded to evaluate whether the plaintiffs were likely to succeed on the merits. Id. at 22.
The Court reversed and remanded the case for further proceedings. Id. at 23.