Law360 – SEIU Can’t Sink Rival’s Suit With SLAPP Law: Appeals Court

NUHW In the NewsJune 5, 2013

Law360, New York (June 03, 2013, 6:48 PM ET) — A lawsuit brought by the National Union of Healthcare Workers president against rival union SEIU shouldn’t have been dismissed under California’s anti-SLAPP statute because the alleged assaults and intimidation at the heart of the complaint weren’t constitutionally protected conduct, a California appeals court ruled Friday
The appeals court reversed a lower court order that granted the motion from the defendants — a group that includes the SEIU and United Healthcare Workers West arm — to strike the complaint pursuant to California’s anti-SLAPP law. Friday’s ruling ruling also nixed a decision that called on NUHW president Sal Rosselli and six fellow plaintiffs to pick up the tab for $57,890 in SEIU legal fees and expenses.

The term SLAPP stands for “strategic lawsuits against public participation,” and the anti-SLAPP statute says that a lawsuit arising from acts “in furtherance of the person’s right of petition or free speech” under the U.S. or California constitutions in connection with a public issue can be targeted in a special motion to strike, like the one the trial court granted in this case.

The appeals court said Friday that the San Francisco Superior Court dropped the ball by finding that the lawsuit took aim at the defendants’ exercise of constitutional rights, and that any protected speech or activities in the complaint were “merely incidental to the unprotected, illegal acts upon which plaintiffs‘ causes of action are necessarily based.”

“The gravamen of all three of plaintiffs‘ causes of action is illegal conduct — violence, assault, threats of physical harm, intimidation and coercion — that is constitutionally unprotected,” according to the ruling.

The August dismissal order said that the NUHW and SEIU-UHW were “locked in a protracted and bitter” fight over who gets to represent more than 100,000 workers. Rosselli used to be the president of the SEIU-UHW, but in January 2009, the local was placed in trusteeship and the leaders were relieved of their management responsibilities. Rosselli and others then stepped down and launched the rival NUHW.

Rosselli and the six other NUHW-affiliated plaintiffs launched a suit in state court in February 2011, accusing the SEIU of turning to dirty tactics including threats and assault as the two labor groups jousted for power.

Their first amended complaint contained allegations of threats, including death threats, discriminatory slurs and epithets, and other intimidation.

In one alleged incident, SEIU agents threw eggs and water bottles at the plaintiffs and other NUHW supporters, hitting several of them. Plaintiff Angela Glasper was allegedly “harassed daily” by SEIU agents and received multiple death threats.

In 2010, Rosselli and labor activist Delores Huerta visited a Kaiser Permanente facility in Modesto, Calif., only to be pushed out of the facility by SEIU agents, who allegedly yelled at Huerta, “Go back to the fields where you belong,” according to the complaint.

Neither the NUHW or the SEIU-UHW immediately responded to request for comment on the decision on Monday

Siegel & Yee’s Dan Siegel, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said Monday that he was pleased with the ruling.

“We were frustrated,” Siegel said, “because the Superior Court seemed to think that because some of the matters that we’re discussing on our complaint did involve free speech, that somehow made all of the acts we’re complaining about acts of free speech.”

The plaintiffs are represented by Dan Siegel of Siegel & Yee, and Angela Alioto and Steven Robinson of the Law Offices of Joseph L. Alioto and Angela Alioto.

The defendants are represented by Jeffrey Demain, Jonathan Weissglass and Anne Arkush of Altshuler Berzon LLP and Glenn Rothner of Rothner Segall & Greenstone.

The case is Sal Rosselli, et al. v. SEIU, et al., case number CGC-11-508420, in the Superior Court of the State of California, County of San Francisco.

—Editing by Jeremy Barker.