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Those seeking to dismiss a suit using the state’s anti-SLAPP law don’t need to prove the suit is intended to chill their First Amendment rights, the California Supreme Court held Thursday. In the first of three SLAPP law rulings issued Thursday, the justices unanimously concluded that an intent-to-chill requirement “would contravene the legislative intent” behind the anti-SLAPP law, which allows for quick dismissal and awards of attorney fees in meritless cases that could chill speech and petition rights. “Obviously, not only when a plaintiff intends to chill speech may the filing of a lawsuit have that result,” wrote Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar, the author of all three rulings. “Taken together,” said James Wheaton, senior counsel for the First Amendment Project, “the cases make it clear anti-SLAPP statutes will continue to be available to protect people who speak out and participate in public affairs.” But the justices clashed Thursday over whether anti-SLAPP motions themselves had become tools for abuse. In the closely watched lead case, Equilon Enterprises v. Consumer Cause Inc., 02 C.D.O.S 7960, all the justices agreed that their decision “will not allow the anti-SLAPP statute itself to become a weapon to chill the exercise of protected petitioning activity by people with legitimate grievances.” But in one of the companion cases, three of the justices dissented, with Justice Janice Rogers Brown warning that “the cure has become the disease — SLAPP motions are now just the latest form of abusive litigation.” Equilon originated from a suit brought by Consumer Cause against Equilon, an oil company, for violating clean water laws. Equilon filed a countersuit — which Consumer Cause moved to strike as a SLAPP, or strategic lawsuit against public participation. The trial court agreed, and Equilon’s suit was dismissed. Equilon unsuccessfully appealed, saying its intent was not to curtail Consumer Cause’s rights, but to clarify Equilon’s rights. Thursday’s California Supreme Court decision affirmed the appeal court’s ruling. “This ruling will help streamline anti-SLAPP motions — they will become very commonplace where they are called for,” said Mors� Mehrban, who argued the case for Consumer Cause. Leslie Landau, a Bingham McCutchen partner representing Equilon, did not return a call seeking comment. Anti-SLAPP proponents lauded the ruling. “What [Equilon] was asking would have essentially rendered the SLAPP protections meaningless,” said Wheaton, who filed an amicus brief in the case on behalf of the Environmental Law Foundation. The two companion cases also involved challenges to litigation stemming from underlying suits. In City of Cotati v. Cashman, 02 C.D.O.S. 7957, the justices concluded that a suit filed by the city in response to a suit seeking to overturn its rent control law didn’t qualify as a SLAPP, and couldn’t be subjected to an anti-SLAPP motion. The third case, Navellier v. Sletten, 02 C.D.O.S. 7964, involved former partners in an investment firm. As part of an earlier settlement, Kenneth Sletten had signed a release that waived his right to sue. When he later did so, he was hit with a breach of contract suit. He sought to dismiss that complaint with an anti-SLAPP motion. Four of the justices said the suit could potentially qualify as a SLAPP, but sent the case back to the court of appeal with instructions to apply the proper test. Justices Brown, Marvin Baxter and Ming Chin dissented, saying “the majority appears willing to consider any suit a SLAPP, based largely on when it was filed.” The attorney general’s office, which filed an amicus brief supporting Consumer Cause, said Thursday’s rulings don’t mean anti-SLAPP motions can’t be defeated. The court took pains to say that reviewing courts should use the law to weed out meritless cases, and let others proceed. “All three cases show that just because the anti-SLAPP statute applies, it doesn’t mean the plaintiffs’ suit will be thrown out,” said California Deputy Attorney General Edward Weil.

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