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Paysinger v. Beverly Hills Unified School District

United States District Court, Central District of California

December 12, 2014

Carter Paysinger
v.
The Beverly Hills Unified School District, et al.

ORDER DENYING ANTI-SLAPP MOTION TO STRIKE

Philip S. Gutierrez, United States District Judge.

Before the Court is Defendant Lewis Hall's ("Defendant" or "Hall") anti-SLAPP motion to strike the California Labor Code § 1102.5 retaliation claim against him. See Dkt. # 28. After considering the arguments presented in the moving, opposing, and reply papers, the Court DENIES Defendant's anti-SLAPP motion to strike the § 1102.5 claim.

I. Background

Plaintiff Carter Paysinger ("Plaintiff or "Paysinger") is the principal of Beverly Hills High School ("BHHS"), and is the first African-American principal in the school's eighty-year history. FAC ¶ 1. Plaintiff asserts that he "has been the victim of a malicious campaign of discrimination and retaliation" led by the Beverly Hills Board of Education ("the Board") and two publicly-elected governing members, Hall and Lisa Korbatov. Id. ¶¶ 2, 8.

Plaintiff alleges that the events preceding Defendants' retaliatory campaign began in June 2013, when he received a warning from Hall that his "family would suffer professional harm and unjustified attacks and investigations if he refused to follow Mr. Hall's orders." Id. ¶ 23. Plaintiff asserts that he ignored these threats; and as a result, Hall contacted the District's administrative office to request Paysinger's family members' confidential personnel files. Id. ¶ 24. Paysinger alleges that he then filed a complaint with the Beverly Hills Unified School District ("the District") requesting it "look into the circumstances surrounding the incident." Id. ¶ 25. Although District policy requires that complaints remain confidential, Plaintiff asserts that the District delivered a copy of the complaint to Hall the next business day. Id. ¶ 26. In response to Paysinger's lodging a complaint, Hall allegedly began his retaliatory campaign. See Id. ¶ 27. Since then, Plaintiff has filed additional complaints with the District charging Hall with racial discrimination and retaliation. See Id. ¶¶ 43, 52. Plaintiff contends that the District never disciplined or took any other remedial action against Hall in response to these complaints, and instead notified Hall of the complaints in violation of District policy. See Id. ¶¶ 30-33, 44-46, 52-56.

Relevant to this motion, Hall allegedly committed the following acts in retaliation for these complaints: (1) he persuaded the District to initiate a knowingly meritless investigation of Paysinger’s involvement in the operation of a private summer sports program (“the Academy”) offered at BHHS facilities, id. ¶¶ 34-36; (2) he provided false and misleading information to the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office (the “D.A.”) so that it would investigate unfounded assertions that Paysinger had a conflict of interest in running the Academy at BHHS, [1] id. ¶¶ 37-49, 41; (3) he voted to deny Plaintiff requested promotions and contract extensions that were received by Caucasian administrators, id. ¶¶ 64-65; (4) he leaked a confidential draft of the District’s investigative report regarding the Academy to the Los Angeles Times, id. ¶¶ 43, 46-50; (5) he subjected Plaintiff to racially discriminatory statements, for example, stating that “he did not trust Mr. Paysinger because of ‘where he is from[, ]’” id. ¶ 63; and (6) he subjected Paysinger’s family to adverse employment decisions by voting to adopt an anti-nepotism rule within the district, id. ¶¶ 57-61.

On July 16, 2014, Plaintiff filed this lawsuit against the District and Hall. See Dkt. # 1. Plaintiff’s FAC asserts seven claims, only two of which are against Hall: (1) violations of his civil rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and (2) retaliation in violation of California Labor Code § 1102.5. Dkt. # 18; see FAC ¶¶ 103-116. Hall filed a motion to dismiss the two claims against him, asserting absolute and qualified immunity defenses to the § 1983 claim and a qualified immunity defense to the § 1102.5 claim. See Dkt. # 20. On October 17, 2014, the Court denied Hall’s motion to dismiss the two claims against him, except as the motion pertained to Hall’s voting for an anti-nepotism policy supporting his § 1983 claim. See Dkt. # 30.

Also on October 17, 2014, Hall filed this anti-SLAPP motion to strike the Cal. Labor Code § 1102.5 retaliation claim against him. See Dkt. # 28.

II. Legal Standard

California Code of Civil Procedure § 425.16 provides for a special motion to strike a “strategic lawsuit against public participation” (“SLAPP”). Such a motion, commonly called an “anti-SLAPP motion, ” provides courts with a remedy to dismiss at an early stage nonmeritorious litigation that challenges various kinds of protected speech. See Kashian v. Harriman, 98 Cal.App.4th 892, 905 (2002); Cal. Code. Civ. Proc. § 425.16(b)(1). The anti-SLAPP statute is given full effect in federal court. See U.S. v. Lockheed Missiles & Space Co., Inc., 190 F.3d 963, 973 (9th Cir. 1999).

In ruling on an anti-SLAPP motion to strike, the court engages in a two-step process. “First, the court decides whether the defendant has made a threshold showing that the challenged cause of action is one arising from protected activity.” Equilon Enters. v. Consumer Cause, Inc., 29 Cal.4th 53, 67 (2002). “The moving defendant’s burden is to demonstrate that the act or acts of which the plaintiff complains were taken ‘in furtherance of the [defendant]’s right of petition or free speech under the United States or California Constitution in connection with a public issue, ’ as defined in the statute.” Id. (citing Cal. Code Civ. Proc. § 425.16(b)(1). An anti-SLAPP motion is “applicable to causes of action that result from a defendant’s (1) oral or written statements ‘made before a legislative, executive, or judicial proceeding, or any other official proceeding authorized by law’; (2) any written or oral statement made in connection with an issue under consideration or review by a governmental body, or any other official proceeding authorized by law; (3) any written or oral statement or writing made in a public place or in a public forum in connection with an issue of public interest; or (4) any other conduct in furtherance of the exercise of the constitution right of petition or of free speech in connection with a public issue or topic of public interest. Martin v. Inland Empire Utilities Agency, 198 Cal.App.4th 611, 623 (2011) (quoting Cal. Code Civ. Proc. § 425.16(e)).

“If a defendant meets this threshold showing, the cause of action shall be stricken unless the plaintiff can establish ‘a probability that the plaintiff will prevail on the claim.’” Martin, 198 Cal.App.4th at 622 (quoting Simpson Strong-Tie Co., Inc. v. Gore, 29 Cal.4th 12, 21 (2010)). “A plaintiff opposing an anti-SLAPP motion bears the burden to make a prima facie showing of facts that would support a judgment in plaintiff’s favor.” See HMS Capital, Inc. v. Lawyers Title Co., 118 Cal.App.4th 204, 211 (2004). In making this determination, the court considers “the pleadings, as well as ‘supporting and opposing affidavits stating the facts upon which the liability or defense is based.’” Id. (quoting Cal. Code Civ. Proc. § 425.16(b)(2)). “In opposing an anti-SLAPP motion, the plaintiff cannot rely on the allegations of the complaint, but must produce evidence that would be admissible at trial.” Id. at 212.

“The court considers the pleadings and evidence submitted by both sides, but does not weigh credibility or compare the weight of the evidence. Rather, the court’s responsibility is to accept as true the evidence favorable to the plaintiff and evaluate the defendant’s evidence only to determine if it has defeated that submitted by the plaintiff as a matter of law. The trial court merely determines whether a prima facie showing has been made that would warrant the claim going forward.” Id. Accordingly, because this second step of the anti-SLAPP inquiry does not involve the weighing of evidence, the California Supreme Court has described it as an early stage “summary-judgment-like procedure.” See Taus v. Loftus, 40 Cal.4th 683, 714 (2007).

“Only a cause of action that satisfies both prongs of the anti-SLAPP statute – i.e., that arises from protected speech or petitioning and lacks even minimal merit – is a SLAPP, subject to being stricken under the statute.” Navellier v. Sletten, 29 Cal.4th 82, 88 (2002).

III. Discussion

Hall argues that the Court should strike Plaintiff’s claim for retaliation under Cal. Labor Code § 1102.5 because it arises out of communicative activity protected by the anti-SLAPP statute and Plaintiff is unable to demonstrate the merit of this cause of action with evidence. See Mot. 12:11-16. The Court will engage in the two-step inquiry outlined by the anti-SLAPP statute and the California Supreme Court. See Cal. Code Civ. Proc. § 425.16(b)(1); Equilon, 29 Cal.4th at 67. First, the Court will determine whether Hall has demonstrated that the § 1102.5 claim arises from acts that are protected under the anti-SLAPP statute. If the conduct is not protected, the inquiry ends and the Court will deny the motion. See Lefebvre v. Lefebvre, 199 Cal.App.4th 696, 705 (2011). If the conduct is protected under the statute, the Court will analyze whether Plaintiff has made a prima facie showing of facts to support prevailing on the claim. Id. at 702; Navellier, 29 Cal.4th at 88.

A. Step One – Protected Conduct

Cal. Labor Code § 1102.5 forbids an employer (or any person acting on behalf of an employer) from retaliating against an employee for disclosing information to an agency or person that the employee reasonably believes discloses a violation of a statute, rule, or regulation. See Patten v. Grant Joint Union High School Dist., 134 Cal.App.4th 1378, 1384 (2005); Cal. Lab. Code § 1102.5(b). In opposition to this anti-SLAPP motion, Plaintiff claims that Hall violated § 1102.5 by committing the following acts in retaliation for Plaintiff’s lodging complaints against him with the District:

(1) Electing not to give Plaintiff promotions and contract extensions;
(2) Causing the District’s investigation of the Academy;
(3) Causing the D.A.’s criminal investigation ...

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