California’s anti-SLAPP statute — found in Code of Civil Procedure §425.16 — allows a defendant to request early judicial screening of a legal claim that targets that defendant’s protected free speech or petitioning activities. Until yesterday, it has been an open question in California as to whether or not California’s anti-SLAPP statute could be used by an employer-defendant facing a claim for discrimination or retaliation from a plaintiff-employee.
But the California Supreme Court, in Wilson v. CNN, has now ruled that it can. According to our Supreme Court, California’s anti-SLAPP statute applies to employment law claims for discrimination and retaliation just as it does to other claims that target a defendant’s protected activities.
In Wilson v. CNN, a journalist alleged that his employer denied him promotions, gave him unfavorable assignments, and ultimately fired him for unlawful discriminatory and retaliatory reasons. The California Supreme Court ruled that, when “the actions a plaintiff alleges in support of his or her claim qualify as protected speech or petitioning activity” then a defendant-employer can use California’s anti-SLAPP statute to request early judicial screening of the plaintiff-employee’s claim to ensure the claim has some “minimal merit” before being allowed to proceed.
What does this mean for California employers and employees, as a practical matter? It means that an employer who has been sued by a current or former employee for discrimination and/or retaliation can use the anti-SLAPP statute and force an early court court determination of whether the employee’s claims have a reasonable likelihood of success on the merits — provided that the defendant-employer can show that its protected speech or other activity supplies “one or more of the elements of plaintiff’s claims.” If the defendant-employer can make that showing, then the defendant-employer could have the entire claim dismissed by the court unless the plaintiff-employee could show a reasonable likelihood of success at trial.
It’s rare that an employer in California gets sued for actions that arise out of that employer’s free speech or other protected rights. So Wilson v. CNN may not turn out to be that great of a weapon in an employer’s arsenal. Nevertheless, Wilson v. CNN is an important case if only because it’s our California Supreme Court issuing an extraordinarily rare ruling that favors employers over employees.
You can read the California Supreme Court’s full opinion in Wilson v. CNN here.