From Calvary Chapel Abuse blog:
Re: Grenier v. Taylor
Case No.: 249252
Date: March 5, 2013 Time: 8:30 A.M.
Dept. 7 – The Honorable Paul Vortmann
Motion: Defendants’ Special Motion To Strike the Complaint as a Meritless SLAPP
Tentative Ruling: The court finds that Defendants’ Web activities are protected under CCP 425.16(e)(3) and finds that Plaintiff Bob Grenier is a Limited Purpose Public Figure. The hearing on this motion is continued to April 9, 2013 at 8:30 a.m. in Department 7 on the issue of malice pursuant to the stipulation of the parties submitted on January 15, 2013.
The objections to evidence submitted by the parties will be determined prior to the continued hearing.
Plaintiffs are the pastor of Calvary Chapel Visalia and his wife. Their Complaint against their son, Alex Grenier and another individual, Tim Taylor, asserts 7 causes of action including three separate counts of Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress, three separate counts of Defamation (based on libel and slander) and a single count of Conspiracy to Defame. Plaintiffs assert they have suffered damages because Defendants have since 2005 engaged in an ongoing Internet campaign to disparage Plaintiffs by falsely claiming that Plaintiffs have, among other things, physically abused their children and misused church property. Defendants move to strike the Complaint under CCP 425.16.
“The special motion to strike established in section 425.16 may be used to attack a cause of action if (1) the cause of action arises from ‘any act [by the defendant] in furtherance of the person’s right of petition or free speech under the United States or California Constitution,’ and (2) the defendant was exercising his or her right of free speech ‘in connection with a public issue.’ (Id., subd. (b)(1).) If the moving defendant establishes those two elements, the burden shifts to the plaintiff to establish there is a probability he or she will prevail on the cause of action. (Id., subd. (b)(1), (2);Vergos v. McNeal (2007) 146 Cal.App.4th 1387, 1400.)
“The trial court reviews the pleadings and the admissible evidence contained in the declarations to determine if the parties have met their burdens of proof. (§ 425.16, subd. (b)(2); Gilbert v. Sykes (2007) 147 Cal.App.4th 13.) The motion may be granted only if the cause of action arises from protected activity and the plaintiff cannot establish a probability of prevailing on the merits. (Navellier v. Sletten (2002) 29 Cal.4th 82, 89.)”
Chabak v. Monroy (2007) 154 Cal.App.4th 1502, 1509-1510
Defendants assert that their activities are protected as “written statements made in a place open to the public or in a public forum in connection with an issue of public interest.” CCP 425.16(e)(3). (Defendants assertions that their activities are also protected under CCP 425.16(e)(1),(2), and (4) are not supported by the submitted facts.)
Defendants assert that Plaintiff, as the pastor of a church, champions to church members and to the community at large principles of morality and right over wrong. Defendants further contend that statements alleging misconduct involving moral turpitude by a pastor including claims of child abuse and misuse of church funds are a matter of public interest and protected under the statute.
It cannot be disputed that allegations of child abuse by members of the clergy have been regularly in the news both in this country and around the world. However, in order for Defendants’ Internet comments to be protected, they must not only refer to a subject of widespread public interest, they must in some way contribute to the public debate. Wilbanks v. Wolk (2004) 121 Cal.App.4th 883, 898.
Gilbert v. Sykes (2007) 147 Cal.App.4th 13 involved a plastic surgeon who cross-complained based on defamation and other claims against a former patient. The patient had set up a Web site disparaging the surgeon’s work done on the patient’s face, including photos and other information. The court found that plastic surgery is a subject of widespread public interest and discussion. The court also found the surgeon to be widely known, that he published numerous articles, appeared on local television on plastic surgery issues and advertised in local media. The court went on to state (at p. 23): “Assertions that a prominent and well-respected plastic surgeon produced ‘nightmare’ results that necessitated extensive revision surgery contributes toward public discussion about the benefits and risks of plastic surgery in general, and particularly among persons contemplating plastic surgery as a means of looking younger or improving their appearance.” The court also noted that the patient’s Web site was not limited to references to the surgeon but also contained general information about plastic surgery, red flags to look for, and references to other Web sites. The court stated (at p. 24): “Clearly the Web site was not limited to attacking Sykes, but contributed to the general debate over the pros and cons of undergoing cosmetic surgery.”
Based on these findings, the court concluded that the patient’s Web site concerned a matter of public interest within the meaning of the statute.
In this action, Defendants’ Web blogs and postings are primarily focused on allegations of wrongdoing by Plaintiff Bob Grenier. Some of Defendants’ statements do, however, include references to churches other than Cavalry Chapel Visalia and include discussion of claims made by other persons against different Cavalry Chapel locations such as Costa Mesa and others. Defendants include in some of their critical comments statements that they want to ensure that members of all Cavalry Chapel congregations take steps to properly vet their leaders and account for church funds to avoid questions of abuse and financial mismanagement. Based on the reasoning in Gilbert, the court finds that Defendants’ Web based comments concern a matter of public interest for purposes of the anti-SLAPP statute.
Defendants contend that in order to show that they are likely to prevail, Plaintiffs must establish actual malice. Defendants assert a showing of malice is required because Plaintiff, as pastor of Calvary Chapel Visalia, has placed himself in the public eye sufficiently to be considered a Limited Purpose Public Figure. Defendants have submitted evidence showing that Plaintiff has a Web site promoting his church and has video feeds of church services available through the Web site. Additionally, Plaintiff has published and distributed a book about his activities as a church leader, and has been active in various community events such as the mayor’s annual prayer breakfast and as a volunteer chaplain with the local police department. Plaintiff has also been active in producing and promoting regional church activities. In these public activities, Plaintiff claims to adhere to, teach, counsel, and to promote high standards of Christian morality and the teachings of the Bible, topics of substantial public interest. The evidence submitted supports Defendants’ claims that Plaintiff sought to have not only church members but others in the community see him as a church leader.
“A person becomes a limited purpose public figure by injecting himself into the public debate about a topic that concerns a substantial number of people. Once he places himself in the spotlight on a topic of public interest, his private words and conduct relating to that topic become fair game.” Gilbert v. Sykes (2007) 147 Cal.App.4th 13, 25
In finding the plastic surgeon in Gilbert a limited purpose public figure the court noted (at p. 26): “Here, Sykes’s sought-after prominence as an expert in and advocate for plastic surgery as a means of personal enhancement transformed him into a limited purpose public figure.”
In this action it is not that Plaintiff was part of the debate on the limited issue of abuse by the clergy, but that he does assert that he is a leader of his church. Allegations of conduct which would violate the trust his church members and members of the public place in him as a church leader are matters of public discussion or controversy.
If no one requests oral argument, under Code of Civil Procedure section 1019.5(a) and California Rules of Court, rule 3.1312(a), no further written order is necessary. The minute order adopting this tentative ruling will become the order of the court and service by the clerk will constitute notice of the order.
JA note: We’ve been communicating and it sure sounds like this is a WIN for Alex and Tim. There is a small hurdle in April for “malice.” But that is a very difficult thing to prove. In malice, one most prove the intent of the heart. I think they are going to be smooth sailing!