A California appellate court ruled that an elected city official’s claims for retaliation and intentional infliction of emotional distress should have been subjected to the defendants’ special motion to strike.
Case: Brown v. City of Inglewood, No. B320658, 05/31/2023, unpublished.
Facts and procedural history: Wanda Brown has served as the elected treasurer for the City of Inglewood since 1987.
Brown filed suit against the city and several individual members of its City Council, alleging that after she reported concerns about financial improprieties, the defendants defamed and retaliated against her.
The defendants filed a joint special motion to strike the complaint as a strategic lawsuit against public participation. A trial judge granted the motion in part. The judge allowed Brown to proceed with her claims for retaliation and the intentional infliction of emotional distress against all defendants.
Analysis: The Court of Appeal for the 2nd District of California explained that the first step in the anti-SLAPP analysis is to identify what acts each challenged claim rests on and to show how those acts are protected under a statutorily defined category of protected activity.
If the judge determines that relief is sought based on allegations arising from activity protected by the statute, the burden shifts to the plaintiff to demonstrate that each challenged claim based on protected activity is legally sufficient and factually substantiated. If the plaintiff cannot carry her burden, the claim is stricken.
Here, the court noted that Brown’s retaliation claims were based on the individual defendants' votes adopting two ordinances and a policy that, collectively, required the allegedly retaliatory reduction in Brown's salary, authority and duties. The court said, "[V]otes taken after a public hearing qualify as acts in furtherance of constitutionally protected activity."
Brown also alleged that the individual defendants engaged in retaliatory adverse actions and "extreme and outrageous conduct" by removing her from the dais at council meetings, but “removal from the dais cannot alone satisfy these elements of Brown's claims because it is not sufficiently material,” the court said.
The court further found that Brown’s retaliation claim was not legally sufficient because she is not an "employee" for the purposes of Labor Code Section 1102.5, which prohibits employers from retaliating against whistleblowing employees who inform the government or police about her employer’s unlawful acts.
The Labor Code unambiguously includes "elected officials" in the definition of "employee" for purposes of workers' compensation, but not within the definition of "employee" for purposes of Section 1102.5, the court said. Accordingly, Brown's Section 1102.5 retaliation claim against the individual defendants fails the second prong of the anti-SLAPP analysis, and the judge erred in denying the anti-SLAPP motion as to that claim, the court said.
The court went on to find that Brown's IIED claim against the individual defendants fails as a matter of law because it is "'subsumed under the exclusive remedy provisions of workers' compensation.'"
Where purportedly wrongful conduct occurred at the work site in the normal course, the court explained, "workers' compensation is plaintiffs' exclusive remedy for any injury that may have resulted."
Disposition: The order on the defendants' anti-SLAPP motion is reversed to the extent it denies the motion as to Brown's Section 1102.5 retaliation claim against the individual defendants and her retaliation-based IIED claim against the individual defendants.
To read the court’s decision, click here.
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