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Former paralegal Peggy Soukup and famed Irish dancer Michael Flatley don’t know each other, but they share one thing in common: Both won cases Thursday clarifying the state’s complex anti-SLAPP law. By a unanimous vote in two rulings involving three cases, the California Supreme Court ruled that anti-SLAPP motions and their counterparts, SLAPP-back suits, can’t be used by defendants to protect speech or activities that are illegal as a matter of law. “A contrary rule,” Justice Carlos Moreno wrote, “would be inconsistent with the purpose of the anti-SLAPP statute as revealed by its language.” A Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation is a suit asserting that a plaintiff’s suit � often for defamation or malicious prosecution � is an attempt to interfere with the business interests or free speech of the defendant. SLAPPs are often an attempt to intimidate the plaintiff or silence critics. The 1992 anti-SLAPP law provides a special motion that lets defendants attempt to dismiss such baseless claims. The SLAPP-back law, approved last year, lets a defendant who has fought off a SLAPP motion seek monetary damages on the theory that the original SLAPP action was an abuse of the legal process. Neither is an easy concept to follow, but the high court, which is seeing more and more of each kind of suit, made things somewhat simpler on Thursday. In the lead ruling, which combined two cases with identical facts but slightly different parties, the court vindicated Soukup � now a commercial caterer in Florida � in a 13-year dispute with her former boss, Claremont lawyer Herbert Hafif. Hafif had sued Soukup and others, claiming they were trying to extort fees and defame him. Soukup successfully filed a motion to strike the suit under the state’s anti-SLAPP law, then turned around and sued Hafif for malicious prosecution. Los Angeles’ Second District Court of Appeal later sided with Hafif, saying he and Ronald Stock, a Fullerton lawyer representing him on appeal, were protected by the anti-SLAPP law because their original suit was a matter of free expression. On Thursday, the Supreme Court reversed, holding that Soukup had demonstrated she would be likely to prevail at trial. “Soukup … cites evidence of attitudes ranging from ‘open hostility to indifference,’” Moreno wrote, “that satisfies the requirement of a showing of minimal merit to her malicious prosecution claim so as to defeat defendants’ motions.” In reaching its decision in Soukup v. Law Offices of Herbert Hafif, 06 C.D.O.S. 6772, ( .pdf) the court made the important finding that the new SLAPP-back law � Code of Civil Procedure ��.18 � applies to cases, such as Soukup’s, that were pending when it was approved by legislators. The court also ruled, however, that Soukup, despite prevailing, hadn’t shown Hafif’s initial suit against her was a retaliatory action that was illegal as a matter of law. In the companion ruling � Flatley v. Mauro, 06 C.D.O.S. 6782 ( .pdf) � Illinois attorney D. Dean Mauro wasn’t as fortunate. The court said his suit against Flatley “constituted criminal extortion” that wasn’t free speech protected by the anti-SLAPP law. Mauro had sued Flatley on behalf of an Illinois woman who claimed the dancer � known for the “Riverdance” and “Lord of the Dance” stage shows � had raped her in his room at Las Vegas’ Venetian Hotel on an October night in 2002. The Waukegan lawyer had threatened to go public with the woman’s allegations unless Flatley paid “seven figures” for their silence. “These communications threatened to ‘accuse’ Flatley of, or ‘impute to him,’ ‘crime[s]‘ and ‘disgrace’ unless Flatley paid Mauro a minimum of $1 million, of which Mauro was to receive 40 percent,” Moreno wrote. “That the threats were half-couched in legalese does not disguise their essential character as extortion.” Flatley had denied the rape allegations � which were never reported to police � and filed a $100 million defamation suit against Mauro. Thursday’s ruling affirms a Second District opinion denying Mauro’s motion to strike Flatley’s suit as a SLAPP suit. “A defendant whose assertedly protected speech or petitioning activity was illegal as a matter of law, and therefore unprotected by constitutional guarantees of free speech and petition,” Moreno wrote, “cannot use the anti-SLAPP statute to strike the plaintiff’s complaint.” Bertram Fields, a partner in L.A.’s Greenberg Glusker Fields Claman Machtinger & Kinsella who represented Flatley, praised the ruling. “Naturally, I’m very gratified at the court’s ruling and Mr. Flatley is delighted,” Fields said. “It’s especially inspiring and gratifying when they rule in your favor. And this was, I think, establishing a very, very good rule of law.” But James Holmes, a partner in the L.A. office of Sedgwick, Detert, Moran & Arnold, which represented Mauro, called the decision a “procedural ruling” that didn’t decide who would eventually prevail. “It is our position that Dean Mauro has an absolute defense,” he said. “However, the court has ruled in this particular opinion that the mechanism of an anti-SLAPP motion was not the proper mechanism for presenting this absolute defense. This case is by no means over.” Alan Charles Dell’Ario, a partner in Oakland’s Dell’Ario & LeBoeuf who represented Soukup, said he was happy the court found his client “had established the probable validity of her case” and “debunked” the defendants’ claims. “I can assure you she will be thrilled,” he said. “And she gets a lot of credit. She did the petition for review � pro per.” San Diego attorney James Moneer, who represented Hafif, couldn’t be reached for comment. Hafif’s appellate level attorney, Stock, who also was sued by Soukup, didn’t want to comment when contacted.

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