Anti-SLAPP laws provide an expedited procedure for dismissing lawsuits that are filed primarily to inhibit the valid exercise of constitutionally protected speech. A defendant seeking to avail herself of an Anti-SLAPP statute must show that the allegedly defamatory statements concern a public matter or a matter of public interest. Not all statements about a person in the public eye qualify. Rather, the subject of the statement must be involved in a public controversy or be so famous that her involvement in a private dispute is a matter of public interest. A California appellate court recently addressed this issue in Albanese v. Menounos and concluded that some celebrity disputes are just none of our business and don’t require the protection of the anti-SLAPP statute.
Lindsay Albanese is a celebrity stylist who worked at NBC for several years as a stylist for Maria Menounos of Access Hollywood fame. Albanese contends that on one occasion after leaving NBC, when Albanese and Menounos ran into each other at an event, Menounos loudly proclaimed that “Dolce and Gabbana won’t lend to me anymore because they said you never returned anything.” Menounos also allegedly told someone at the party afterwards that Albanese had stolen from her while she worked at NBC.
Albanese sued Menounos for defamation, tortious interference with prospective economic advantage, and intentional infliction of emotional distress, arguing that the statements were made with malice, actual knowledge of their falsity, and with specific intent to injure Albanese’s reputation and employment. Her complaint seeks damages for injury to her personal, business and professional reputation, embarrassment, humiliation, severe emotional distress, shunning, anguish, fear, loss of employment and employability and economic loss in the form of lost wages and future earnings. Menounos moved to strike the complaint under California’s anti-SLAPP law.
In order to strike a complaint under California’s anti-SLAPP law, a party must make a threshold showing that the challenged cause of action is one arising from a protected activity such as free speech in connection with a public issue or an issue of public interest. The burden then shifts to the opposing party to demonstrate a probability of prevailing on the claim. A cause of action is subject to dismissal under the statute only if both steps of the anti-SLAPP analysis are met.
Menounos argued that the statements at issue constituted speech in connection with a public issue because Albanese is in the public eye and any statement concerning a person in the public eye qualifies as speech in connection with a public issue or an issue of public interest. To show that Albanese is in the public eye, Menounos asserted that (1) Albanese refers to herself as a style expert and celebrity stylist in her website, and on her blog and Twitter and Facebook accounts; (2) a Google search of Albanese’s name reveals over 662,000 entries and hundreds of articles, images, reports and advertisements about Albanese and her career as a celebrity stylist; (3) Albanese appeared on the national TV show Hair Battle Spectacular; (4) Albanese worked with nationally known figures such as Maria Menounos, Paula Abdul and Lara Flynn Boyle; (5) Albanese dressed the female cast members of Glee and the contestants on Bachelors and Bachelorettes; and (6) Albanese served as a “celebrity stylist spokesperson for nationally recognized products such as Seven for all Mankind and Famous Footwear Shoes.
The lower court denied the motion to strike finding that Menounos failed to make the threshold showing that the causes of action arise from a public issue or an issue of public interest. Menounos appealed, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.
On appeal, the court noted that the purpose of the anti-SLAPP statute is to encourage participation in matters of public significance and discourage meritless litigation designed to chill the exercise of First Amendment rights. The statute does not define what constitutes a public issue or an issue of public interest, so the court examined cases in which the public issue requirement was met and cases in which it was not.
The court’s analysis concluded that a public interest is at stake if (1) the subject of the statement is a person in the public eye; (2) the underlying activity could affect large numbers of people beyond the direct participants; or (3) the statement involved a topic of widespread public interest. Where the issue is of interest only to a private group, the activity must occur in the context of an ongoing controversy such that its protection would encourage participation in matters of public significance. Case law also suggests that there should be some degree of closeness between the challenged statements and the asserted public interest. Contrary to Menounos’ assertion that any statement about a person in the public eye is sufficient to meet the public interest requirement, the assertion of a broad, amorphous public interest is not enough.
The court found that while there is some public interest in Albanese based on her profession as a celebrity stylist, there is no public controversy concerning her, Menounos, or Dolce and Gabbana. No evidence existed that the public is interested in the alleged theft of items from Menounos or Dolce and Gabbana. Menounos argued that Albanese voluntarily placed herself in the public eye by creating and maintaining a web page, but the court did not think that the publicity was sufficient to make her a public figure in all contexts. Even if Albanese is a well-known stylist, the court found no evidence that she was involved in a public controversy or that her fame is so great that her involvement in this private dispute is a matter of public interest. Accordingly, the court affirmed the lower court’s decision to deny the motion to strike. Albanese’s claims will go forward.