Deanna Mory was a probationary police officer with the Chula Vista, California Police Department when she sought permission to be a beauty contestant to compete in both the Miss California and Miss United States beauty pageants. When the Department denied her permission to participate in the pageants because she was a probationary employee, Mory sued. After a brief period of time, the Department changed its mind and allowed Mory to participate in the pageants.
The Chula Vista Police Officers Association provided financial support for Mory’s lawsuit. The matter was not without controversy in the Association, and was discussed at a series of Association meetings. At an Association meeting in January 2007, nine members of the Association insisted that the Association’s board drop the lawsuit, called for a membership vote on whether to proceed supporting the lawsuit, asked about a $100,000 retainer for legal services in connection with the lawsuit, and said that the lawsuit would bankrupt the Association.
Mory and the Association responded by filing a second lawsuit, this against not only the nine Association members who criticized the Association’s participation in the lawsuit, but also against the City, which Mory alleged had conspired with the nine Association members to intimidate the Association’s board to drop the first lawsuit.
A federal court not only dismissed all of the substantive portions of Mory’s second lawsuit, it also issued sanctions against Mory. The Court found that “the union defendants did not relinquish their free speech rights by becoming public employees. They did not relinquish their rights to speak and debate about the merits of the first lawsuit – an issue of public concern – and the use of their union dues towards that lawsuit. This Court also recognizes that opposition does not lose its protected status simply because it angers and upsets the listeners. After all, that is the very point of opposition. Thus, the union defendants’ statements constitute free speech.”
The Court was also unimpressed with Mory’s arguments that either the nine members of the Association or the City conspired to violate her constitutional right to equal protection. The Court concluded that “Mory’s allegations present no basis for concluding that any of the defendants’ actions were motivated by a racial or class-based discriminatory animus. Mory argues that since the defendants could not possibly be in a position to evaluate the strengths of the merits of her gender discrimination lawsuit, they must have been motivated by an animus towards the claims in her first lawsuit, that is, class-based animus based on her gender. This is but one of the various conclusory arguments that form the basis of this lawsuit and her first lawsuit. These allegations are completely unsupported by the evidence before this Court.”
The Court concluded its opinion by finding that Mory’s lawsuit was so baseless that the nine Association members and the City were entitled to attorney fees under California’s SLAPP statute. SLAPP statutes are referred to as “strategic lawsuits against public participation,” and are aimed at the early dismissal of meritless suits designed to chill the valid exercise of freedom of speech. SLAPP statutes not only allow for early dismissal of such lawsuits, but also for the award of attorney fees if the lawsuit was brought without a “probability” of prevailing on its merits.
The Court found the sanctions against Mory were appropriate under the anti-SLAPP lawsuit: “The union meeting statements are either protected speech or, at a minimum, trivial non-actionable harms. Mory’s allegation that the union defendants were encouraged by the City were wholly unsubstantiated. The Court finds that attorney’s fees are warranted, and will determine the precise amount after Mory has had an opportunity to respond.”
Mory v. City of Chula Vista, 2008 WL 360449 (S.D.Cal. 2008).
This article appears in the April 2008 issue