Psychologist’s Opinion On Fitness Is Protected Speech in California

John Espinoza was a police officer for the City of Imperial, California. When the City began to have concerns about Espinoza’s fitness for duty, it ordered him to undergo an examination by a psychologist, Ira Grossman. After examining Espinoza, Grossman gave the opinion that Espinoza was not fit for duty and that he lacked integrity.

Espinoza sued both Grossman and the City. The portion of the lawsuit dealing with Grossman alleged that Grossman’s opinion constituted defamation of character and amounted to the “tort” of intentional infliction of emotional distress.
A federal court not only dismissed Espinoza’s complaint against Grossman, but also required Espinoza to pay Grossman’s attorney’s fees. The case was decided under California’s “Anti-SLAPP” statute, which provides a method for the early dismissal of lawsuits that are perceived as being aimed at deterring “public participation.” Under California’s Anti-SLAPP statute, an individual cannot be sued for statements he or she has made if the statements (1) were made before a legislative, executive, or judicial proceeding, or in any other official proceeding authorized by law; or (2) made in connection with an issue under consideration of review by a legislative or judicial body, or any other official proceeding authorized by law.

The Court found that the fitness-for-duty evaluation arose “from protected activity associated with an administrative proceeding and is properly construed as communications within the scope of Anti-SLAPP protections, irrespective of whether the statements were false. Espinoza has not demonstrated a probability of prevailing on any of his claims against Grossman. He has not shown how the psychologist’s professional assessment he was unfit to continue working as a police officer is ‘provably false,’ as would be required to prevail on his defamation claim.”

Under California’s Anti-SLAPP statute, a defendant who brings his successful motion to strike a complaint is entitled to attorney’s fees. The Court thus ruled that “Grossman is entitled on that basis to recover his attorney’s fees and costs. He shall proceed to substantiate the appropriate amount of his entitled recovery.”

Espinoza v. City of Imperial, 2008 WL 2397430 (S.D.Cal. 2008).

This article appears in the September 2008 issue