Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Real Stepsons of Tulare County

Grenier v. Taylor, No. F067263 (D5 Feb. 18, 2015)

A megachurch pastor’s stepson and another congregant started accusing the pastor and his wife of some pretty bad stuff on the Internet. Stuff like child molestation, tax evasion, dealing drugs, and stealing money from the church. Pastor and wife sued for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress. As one would expect, that was met with an anti-SLAPP motion, which was denied because plaintiffs established a likelihood of success.

Applying the two-step anti-SLAPP analysis, the court first holds that the Internet postings were protected activity as defined by Code of Civil Procedure § 425.16(e)(3), which addresses statements made in public fora on issues of public concern. As the court explains, public concern doesn’t need to be world-wide concern. As the large volume of anti-SLAPP litigation involving homeowners associations shows, public concerns can address an issue of significant concern to a discrete community. A mega-church with 500 to 1,000 members counts, and allegations of child abuse and stealing church funds would clearly be of community interest to the congregants.

But that doesn’t matter because the pastor and his wife made the requisite prima facie showing that their claims would succeed. The pastor wasn’t a public figure, so no proof of New York Times malice was required. Ministers aren’t automatic public figures, and the pastor here was, as the trial court remarked, “no Jerry Falwell, Jesse Jackson, or Louis Farrakhan.” Nor did he inject himself into the controversy over the Internet remarks in a way that made him a limited purpose public figure. So the elements of ordinary private defamation applied. And because plaintiffs met their burden of coming forward with evidence of these elements, as well as the elements of IIED, so the motion was properly denied.


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