Justia Communications Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in California Courts of Appeal
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Golden Gate, which operates a Berkeley horse racing track, sued Action, an animal rights organization, and individuals who allegedly climbed over a fence surrounding the race track, lit incendiary devices that produced smoke, then lay down on the track with their arms connected using PVC to make removing them difficult. The trespassers prevented scheduled races. The complaint alleged trespass and intentional interference with prospective economic relations. The complaint alleged that “each of the defendants" was "the agent, co-conspirator, aider and abettor, employee, representative, co-venturer, and/or alter ego of each and every other defendant,” but did not specify the circumstances upon which Action’s alleged vicarious liability was based. Action responded by filing an anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, Code of Civil Procedure 425.16) motion, claiming it “had no involvement in the civil disobedience.”The trial court denied the anti-SLAPP motion, ruling that Action failed to show that the complaint challenged protected activity. The court of appeal affirmed. Claims alleging that an advocacy organization is vicariously liable for a third party’s illegal conduct may be subject to a demurrer or other summary challenge, but they cannot be stricken under the anti-SLAPP statute unless the organization’s alleged liability is premised on constitutionally protected activity. The only fair reading of the complaint is that the wrong on which the claims against Action are based was the organization’s alleged involvement in the illegal trespass, not its speech or petitioning activity. View "Golden Gate Land Holdings LLC v. Direct Action Everywhere" on Justia Law

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In 2020, while wildfires swept through portions of Sonoma County, close to many homes, Sheriff Essick met with the County Board of Supervisors, fire officials, and members of the public in a streamed town hall meeting. Essick provided updates on an evacuation strategy and fielded questions from the public. When asked whether evacuated residents might be permitted to reenter mandatory evacuation zones to feed pets and animals left behind, Sheriff Essick refused to grant such permission, citing safety concerns. Sheriff Essick’s subsequent communications led to a harassment complaint. An independent investigator, Oppenheimer, conducted an inquiry and prepared a written report. A newspaper requested that the county release the complaint, the report, and various related documents) California Public Records Act (CPRA), Gov. Code 6250). The trial court denied Essick's request for a preliminary injunction barring the report's release. The court of appeal affirmed. The court rejected arguments that the Oppenheimer Report should be classified as confidential under CPRA exemptions for “peace officers” “personnel records,” or reports or findings relating to a complaint by a member of the public against a peace officer The county is not estopped from releasing the Oppenheimer Report nor bound to keep the results of the investigation confidential. Nothing in the Public Safety Officers Procedural Bill of Rights explicitly grants or mentions confidentiality from CPRA requests, Sonoma County is not Essick's “employing agency.” View "Essick v. County of Sonoma" on Justia Law

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Robert filed a petition, alleging that Dae violated a “no contest” clause in a family trust by filing a previous petition challenging Robert’s actions as trustee. Dae’s subsequently moved to strike Robert’s petition under the anti-SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) statute (Code Civ. Proc. 425.16.)The court of appeal affirmed the denial of the anti-SLAPP motion. Robert’s No Contest Petition arose from protected petitioning activity under Code of Civil Procedure 425.16(e)(1); to defeat Dae’s motion, Robert was required to show a probability that he would prevail on that Petition. Robert made such a showing. Dae’s petition broadly challenged Robert’s conduct in setting up a financial structure that Robert claimed was designed to avoid estate taxes. If Robert’s claim is true, Dae’s petition would implicate the no-contest provision by seeking to “impair” trust provisions giving Robert the authority to manage trust assets. Dae also challenged his own removal as a beneficiary. Whether that more specific challenge amounts to a “contest” for purposes of the no-contest clause depends upon the trustors’ intent. Robert provided sufficient evidence of the trustors’ intent to allow a change of beneficiary to make a prima facie showing of probability of prevailing on Robert’s contention that Dae’s claims are a “contest.” The court expressed no opinion on the outcome of Robert’s petition. View "Dae v. Traver" on Justia Law

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To connect a California caller to a California recipient, long-distance carriers must purchase access to local exchange services provided by local carriers (switched access services). Long-distance carriers have no control over which local carrier will provide switched access services and “have no choice but to use this service." In its complaint to the Public Utilities Commission, Qwest (a long-distance carrier) alleged that local carriers discriminated against it by providing other long-distance carriers, AT&T and Sprint, with discounted rates for switched access services. Qwest was not charged more than the rates set forth in the local carriers’ tariffs. The Commission concluded Qwest showed that it was similarly situated to AT&T and Sprint and that there was no rational basis for treating Qwest differently with respect to the rates. The court of appeal affirmed, rejecting challenges to the Commission failing to conduct an additional evidentiary hearing, finding Qwest was similarly situated to the Contracting Carriers without considering various factors the Commission identified in earlier Decisions; treating differences in the cost of providing service as the only “rational basis” for different rates; concluding Qwest is entitled to refunds; and in determining for the first time during the rehearing that switched access is a monopoly bottleneck service. View "Bullseye Telecom, Inc. v. California Public Utilities Commission" on Justia Law

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The recipients received unsolicited emails that advertised products sold by DMS. The emails were not sent by DMS itself, but by third-party “marketing partners” of DMS. The recipients sued DMS under Business and Professions Code section 17529.5, which makes it unlawful to advertise in commercial emails under specified circumstances. The subject line of the emails typically states: Username “please confirm your extended warranty plan” and allegedly falsely referenced a preexisting business relationship for the purpose of inducing the recipient to open the spam. The trial court dismissed the suit.The court of appeal affirmed in part. The court correctly dismissed the challenge to the emails’ subject lines, which are not covered by cited sections of the Act. The court erred by dismissing the challenge to the emails’ domain names. A recipient of a commercial email advertisement sent by a third party is not precluded as a matter of law from stating a cause of action under section 17529.5 against the advertiser for the third party’s failure to provide sufficient information disclosing or making traceable the third party’s own identity. Such a cause is not precluded simply because such an email sufficiently identifies the advertiser. View "Greenberg v. Digital Media Solutions, LLC" on Justia Law

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Rio Vista Officer Collondrez responded to a hit-and-run accident. According to an internal affairs investigation, Collondrez falsified his report, arrested a suspect without probable cause, used excessive force, applied a carotid control hold on the suspect, and failed to request medical assistance. After hearings, the city agreed to pay Collondrez $35,000. Collondrez resigned. The agreement provides that Collondrez's disciplinary reports will only be released as required by law or upon legal process issued by a court of competent jurisdiction, after written notice to Collondrez. Penal Code section 832.71 was subsequently amended to require the disclosure of police officer personnel records concerning sustained findings of dishonesty or making false reports. The city responded to media requests under the Public Records Act for records, giving Collondrez prior notice of only some of the disclosures. Media outlets reported the misconduct allegations. His then-employer, Uber, fired Collondrez. Collondrez sued.The trial court partially granted the city’s to strike the complaint under California’s anti-SLAPP statute, Code of Civil Procedure 425.16, finding that Collondrez had shown a probability of prevailing on his claims for breach of contract and invasion of privacy but not on claims for interference with prospective economic advantage and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The court of appeal reversed in part, in favor of the city. The complaint arises from speech protected by the anti-SLAPP statute, but the trial court erred in finding Collondrez established a likelihood of prevailing two counts. View "Collondrez v. City of Rio Vista" on Justia Law

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Murphy, a journalist with approximately Twitter 25,000 followers, had a Twitter “verification badge,” which “lets people know that an account of public interest is authentic.” Murphy “writes primarily on feminist issues, including the Me Too movement, the sex industry, sex education, third-wave feminism, and gender identity politics.” Murphy argues “that there is a difference between acknowledging that transgender women see themselves as female and counting them as women in a legal or social sense.” Murphy posted several tweets critical of transgender women. Twitter removed her posts and informed her she had violated its hateful conduct rules. After she posted additional similar messages, Twitter permanently suspended her account.Murphy filed suit, alleging breach of contract, promissory estoppel, and violation of the unfair competition law. The trial court dismissed the complaint, concluding Murphy’s suit was barred by the Communications Decency Act of 1996, 47 U.S.C. 230, under which interactive computer service providers have broad immunity from liability for traditional editorial functions undertaken by publishers—such as decisions whether to publish, withdraw, postpone or alter content created by third parties. The court of appeal affirmed. Each of Murphy’s causes of action seeks to hold Twitter liable for its editorial decisions. Murphy also failed to state a cognizable claim under California law. The Hateful Conduct Policy was in place when Murphy began posting her deleted tweets; Twitter expressly reserved the right to remove content, and suspend or terminate accounts “for any or no reason.” View "Murphy v. Twitter, Inc." on Justia Law

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Defendant Edward Siegel was an unsuccessful candidate for the Solana Beach City Council in 2016. During and after the City Council campaign, Siegel’s campaign manager, defendant Brian Hall, sent a letter to the editor, distributed e-mails to local government and media, and posted Facebook messages about City Council members Lesa Heebner and Mike Nichols, and their relationship with local developer Joseph Balla (with Heebner and Nichols collectively, plaintiffs). Primarily using a fictional persona he created, “Andrew Jones,” Hall asserted or implied that Heebner and Nichols lobbied for the North County Transit District (NCTD) to select Balla for a Solana Beach train station project in exchange for Balla giving them design work on the project and directing a charitable donation to a nature conservancy they supported. Siegel and Hall also ran a campaign advertisement implying that Heebner endorsed Siegel in the City Council race using a favorable quote from a 2007 Certificate of Appreciation signed by Heebner and given to Siegel by the City for his volunteer work. Plaintiffs sued for defamation based on the publications, and Heebner claimed false light invasion of privacy based on the advertisement. Hall filed special motions to strike pursuant to Code of Civil Procedure section 425.16, the anti-SLAPP statute. Siegel agreed not to file anti-SLAPP motions in exchange for relief from default; when he tried to file notices of joinder to Hall’s motions, the trial court rejected them. The court permitted plaintiffs to conduct discovery on actual malice, and then denied the anti-SLAPP motions. Hall appealed, contending the trial court erred: (1) by denying his motions; (2) by denying Siegel’s joinder; and (3) in permitting discovery. In essence, his position was that his publications were political opinions about a conflict of interest and not actionable. To this the Court of Appeal disagreed: calculated or reckless falsehoods can still amount to defamation even in that context. The Court reached a different conclusion as to plaintiffs' false light claim, as Heebner did not show the advertisement was defamatory per se or introduce evidence of special damages. Finally, the Court of Appeal affirmed the joinder and discovery rulings. View "Balla v. Hall" on Justia Law

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Yelp publishes crowdsourced business reviews and allows businesses to advertise on its Website and mobile app. Yelp employs over 2,000 sales representatives to solicit advertising sales. Gruber, a solo attorney practitioner, was contacted by phone several times by Yelp sales representatives. During these calls, in which the sales representatives’ voices were recorded, Gruber discussed confidential and financial information regarding his law firm. When conversing with one representative, who happened to be his friend, Gruber sometimes joked, discussed private topics, and used profanity. Gruber did not recall that any Yelp sales representative notified him that the conversations were being recorded. Gruber sued under the California Invasion of Privacy Act (CIPA) Pen. Code 630, alleging unlawful recording and intercepting of communications; unlawful recording of and eavesdropping upon confidential communications; and unlawful wiretapping.The trial court granted Yelp summary judgment. The court of appeal reversed. While Gruber was not recorded during any calls (only Yelp’s representatives were recorded), CIPA is violated if a defendant records any portion of a conversation between two or more individuals. When the Yelp salespeople spoke during the one-sided recordings of their conversations with Gruber, the recordings revealed firsthand and in real-time their understanding of or reaction to Gruber’s words. Yelp failed to meet its burden of production regarding whether its use of VoIP technology precludes CIPA's application. View "Gruber v. Yelp Inc." on Justia Law

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Oakland entered into agreements with OBOT for the development of the former Oakland Army Base. The project was to include a bulk commodity shipping terminal for products, including coal. When the subject of coal became public, it activated interest groups, ultimately leading to an ordinance banning coal handling and storage in the city and a resolution applying the ordinance to the terminal. A federal court held that the resolution was a breach of the OBOT agreements, and enjoined Oakland from relying on the resolution. Friction between OBOT and Oakland continued. OBOT sued, alleging breach of contract and tort claims.The city filed a demurrer, then a special motion to strike (SLAPP motion, Code of Civil Procedure 425.16) that sought to strike “in part” the complaint. The SLAPP motion was heard with other matters. The hearing dealt primarily with the demurrer, which the court overruled in most part, and sustained in part with leave to amend. Days later, the court “denied without prejudice” the SLAPP motion, describing it as “premature” in light of the amended complaint to come.The court of appeal determined that the SLAPP motion has no merit because the complaint is not based on protected activity and remanded with instructions to deny the motion on the merits. The essence of the complaint arose from Oaklands’s acts or omissions in breach of its agreements, its refusal to cooperate, and its tortious conduct. View "Oakland Bulk and Oversized Terminal, LLC v. City of Oakland" on Justia Law