APPEAL from an order of the Superior Court of Stanislaus County. Roger M. Beauchesne, Judge. (Super. Ct. No. CV 617071).
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Levy, J.
CERTIFIED FOR PUBLICATION
Appellants, Sam Martinez, Frank Dickson, and Ron Rocha, challenge the trial court's denial of their motion to strike the defamation complaint filed by respondent, John Hailstone, as a strategic lawsuit against public participation (SLAPP) under Code of Civil Procedure*fn1 section 425.16. The trial court concluded that the alleged defamatory statements did not concern an issue of public interest and therefore the complaint did not arise from protected activity.
As discussed below, the trial court erred in denying the motion on that ground. The subject statements were protected under the anti-SLAPP law. Nevertheless, Hailstone established that his claim has at least minimal merit. Accordingly, the trial court's order denying appellants' motion to strike will be affirmed.
Hailstone was employed as a senior business agent by the Teamsters Local Union No. 948 (Local 948). Local 948 represents over 10,000 cannery workers.
The Teamsters Union is a three-tiered organization. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) is the parent union. The IBT issues charters for the formation of local unions organized by craft and/or geographic area. Each local union is affiliated with an intermediate body known as the joint council. The joint council resolves jurisdictional disputes between the affiliated unions and conducts internal union disciplinary hearings.
Local 948 is also affiliated with the Teamsters Cannery Council. The Cannery Council is an association of three local unions that was formed primarily to negotiate with California Processors, Inc. (CPI), a multi-employer association. The multi-employer collective bargaining agreement between the Cannery Council and CPI covers approximately 16,000 cannery and food processing workers in California. Hailstone served on the Cannery Council's executive board.
Under this multi-employer collective bargaining agreement, a health and welfare trust fund, the Joint Benefit Trust Fund (JBT), was established. The JBT is administered by a board composed of equal numbers of union-appointed and management-appointed trustees. By virtue of his position on the Cannery Council, Hailstone served as a trustee of the JBT.
Hailstone was also a founding member of the National Association of Business Representatives (NABR), a union representing the business agents employed by Local 948.
In June 2007, Hailstone was suspended from his employment by appellant Sam Martinez, the Local 948 secretary-treasurer, for allegedly "double dipping" into union funds. On several occasions, Hailstone had received both a mileage reimbursement from the JBT and a gas allowance from Local 948 for a business-related activity. In a confirming letter to Hailstone dated June 19, 2007, Martinez stated:
"[¶] You were suspended pending further investigation because of unlawful double dipping. A recent investigation has determined that on a number of occasions you were reimbursed by the Local for expenses of attending trust meetings, while similarly being reimbursed by the Trust Fund without reimbursing the Union for those expenses. This is double dipping, which is a breach of your fiduciary duty to the Union's membership and a violation of Federal Law."
Martinez sent copies of this letter to: John Hurley, the management side co-chair of the JBT and the president of CPI; John Sousa, the president of the joint council; Chuck Mack, the IBT president for the western region; and the Local 948 executive board. Information regarding these alleged violations was also sent to the Department of Labor.
Martinez continued with his investigation and, in doing so, spoke with others about the alleged double dipping.
On July 10, 2007, Hailstone was terminated as a Local 948 business agent. However, this termination did not automatically affect Hailstone's other appointments. Hailstone retained his positions as a Cannery Council executive board member and as a JBT trustee.
Six days after his termination, Hailstone filed the underlying complaint for defamation against Martinez, Frank Dickson, the Local 948 president, and Ron Rocha, an IBT special representative assigned to assist Local 948. Hailstone alleged that appellants published false statements accusing Hailstone of criminal activity and breaches of fiduciary duty both orally and in writing.
Appellants responded by filing a motion to strike the defamation complaint as a SLAPP under section 425.16. Appellants argued the alleged defamatory statements concerned an issue of public interest, i.e., the misappropriation of union funds, and thus fell within the ambit of the anti-SLAPP statute. They further asserted that Hailstone could not demonstrate a probability of prevailing on the merits of the defamation action because the subject statements were privileged under both California and federal law.
The trial court concluded that appellants had failed to establish that the alleged statements were entitled to protection under section 425.16, i.e., that they were made in connection with a public issue or an issue of public interest. Accordingly the trial court denied the motion to strike. The trial court did not reach the ...