County Investigation Triggers Anti-SLAPP

Internal Complaint Against County Counsel Leading to Internal Investigation Deemed to be an “Official Proceeding” — Anti-SLAPP Law Thus Applies

This is all about what is (and is not) an “official proceeding” giving a “protective shield” to statements made — if the “protective shield” of Anti-SLAPP applies, suit cannot be brought over those protected statements. Here, a county investigation triggered Anti-SLAPP.

In our recent post Anti-SLAPP Law: Not Applicable to Arbitration, we covered an interesting result where Anti-SLAPP law was held inapplicable to evidence submitted during an arbitration proceeding resulting in a $65 million dollar award. The headline was: arbitration is not an “official proceeding” (nor a “judicial proceeding”).

A recent case presents an interesting contrast where “official proceeding” was found, thus granting Anti-SLAPP protection: Guarino v. County of Siskiyou, (2018) 21 Cal. App. 5th 1170. In Guarino, an internal county investigation was deemed to be an “official proceeding” triggering Anti-SLAPP law protection.

The Facts.

The facts here include multiple investigations, two resignations, and two lawsuits. It all started with a complaint by a subordinate (Ms. Baca) against Mr. Guarino. Soon, that complaint escalated to a Government Tort Claim by Ms. Baca. Following this, Ms. Baca filed a lawsuit.

The person Ms. Baca was accusing, Mr. Guarino, was then Siskiyou County Counsel. A specific set of rules governs separating a person like Guarino who was serving a set term (Gov. Code § 27641). Siskiyou proceeded to attempt to separate Mr. Guarino. Mr. Guarino eventually resigned. Guarino then filed his own Government Tort Claim against the County for its actions in attempting to oust him (and then, apparently a lawsuit).

Recap: Baca accuses Guarino. Baca sues. Siskiyou tries to oust Guarino. Guarino resigns and files a claim.

Issue: Does Guarino’s claim arise from “protected activity”. The Court of Appeal cited to a number of cases involving actions by state entities undertaken to perform investigations and how such investigations have been protected under Anti-SLAPP law.

Holding: Yes, Siskiyou was acting pursuant to CCP § 425.16(e) in performing these investigations and/or in the separation efforts per Gov. Code § 27641. The court noted that a county is obliged to supervise county officers and has authority to investigate alleged improprieties.

Analysis: Government Internal Investigation vs. Private Arbitration

To contrast Guarino against Zhang is admittedly an “apples and oranges” situation. The private arbitration at issue in Zhang did not have the same Government Code statutes at play. Further, neither party in Zhang was a government entity. CCP § 425.16(e) has language which has broad protections for issues at stake in a case like this where a government entity is navigating a personnel issue where a statutory framework exists.

The takeaway: there are broad protections in place under Anti-SLAPP rules which protect government entities in personnel matters.