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Ojjeh v. Brown

California Court of Appeals, First District, Third Division

December 31, 2019

Bassel OJJEH, Plaintiff and Respondent,
v.
Stephen BROWN et al., Defendants and Appellants.

         [257 Cal.Rptr.3d 149] San Mateo County, Hon. Susan Greenberg (San Mateo County Super. Ct. No. 18CIV01902)

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         COUNSEL

         Walter C. Cook, for Defendants and Appellants.

         Structure Law Group, Mark R. Figueiredo, San Jose, Ethan G. Solove, Austin T. Jackson, for Plaintiff and Respondent.

         OPINION

         Fujisaki, J.

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          Defendants Stephen Brown (Brown) and Ignite Channel, Inc. (Ignite) solicited and obtained $180,000 in investments from plaintiff Bassel Ojjeh to produce a documentary film on the refugee crisis in Syria. Plaintiff later sued, claiming that no "significant" or "substantial" work had been performed on the film, and that defendants had breached their contractual obligations, defrauded him of his investments, and used his investments for purposes unrelated to the film. Defendants filed a special motion to strike the complaint or portions thereof under the anti-SLAPP law (Code Civ. Proc., § 425.16),[1] claiming the complaint targeted their protected speech activity in producing the documentary. The trial court denied the motion at the first stage of the anti-SLAPP analysis, finding the complaint does not arise from acts in furtherance of defendants’ exercise of their right of free speech.

         We conclude defendants have made a prima facie showing that the complaint targets conduct falling within the so-called "catchall" provision of the anti-SLAPP law. (§ 425.16, subd. (e)(4).) Specifically, defendants’ solicitation of investments from plaintiff and their performance of allegedly unsatisfactory work on the uncompleted documentary constituted activity in furtherance of their right of free speech in connection with an issue of public interest. Accordingly, the trial court erred in denying defendants’ motion at the first stage of the anti-SLAPP analysis. We reverse and remand the matter for further proceedings.

          FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         In 2018, plaintiff filed a complaint against defendants for (1) breach of contract, (2) breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing, (3) fraud, (4) false promise, (5) violation of the Unfair Competition Law (UCL; Bus. & Prof. Code, § 17200 et seq.), (6) conversion, and (7) unjust enrichment. The complaint alleges as follows:

          In early 2016, plaintiff and defendant Brown spoke about the situation in Syria and the human suffering occurring there. Afterwards, Brown solicited

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an investment from plaintiff to make a documentary motion picture about the Syrian refugee crisis. Brown represented that the investment would be used by his company, defendant Ignite, "to fund the filming and production of the Documentary, for which Brown had high goals, including eventual submission to the Oscars in 2016." In June 2016, plaintiff and Ignite signed an investor agreement, and plaintiff made an investment of $150,000. Production was scheduled to take place in 2016, and the film’s release was scheduled for 2017.

          In April 2017, Brown told plaintiff the film was in the production phase and requested additional funding. In reliance on [257 Cal.Rptr.3d 150] this representation, plaintiff made an additional $30,000 investment. Brown later represented in December 2017 that production was almost finished. Whenever plaintiff requested to see progress of the film, however, defendants were evasive, claimed to have lost an initial set of footage, and showed him only short clips that were raw and not ready for an audience.

          Plaintiff alleges that no "significant" work on the documentary has occurred, and that defendants never had any intention of making the documentary. Instead, Brown has used the invested funds for his own purposes, including the promotion of his image and work on projects unrelated to the documentary or to Ignite. Plaintiff further alleges that a cinematographer hired by defendants to work on the documentary has not been paid for his work, and that the cinematographer believes he owns the right to any footage he has shot, putting the entire project in jeopardy.

          The Causes of Action

          Plaintiff’s first cause of action for breach of contract alleges in relevant part that defendants were required under the investor agreement to film and produce the documentary, that a timeline was set for production to occur in 2016 and for release of the film in 2016 or 2017 at the latest, but that defendants failed to perform their contractual obligations, as "no significant work" has taken place on the documentary.

          In the second cause of action for breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing, plaintiff alleges in relevant part that defendants "were required to film and produce the Documentary" but that they "did not act in good faith" and "did not perform under the contract and never had any intention to do so. Instead, they used Plaintiff’s investment for Brown’s own purposes, including his unrelated self-promotion and work on unrelated projects," and this unfairly interfered with plaintiff’s right to receive the benefit of having the documentary made.

          In the third cause of action for fraud, plaintiff alleges in relevant part that defendants falsely told him they ...


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