The California Supreme Court ruled Aug. 29 that a picket line outside the home of a real estate company’s chief executive officer following a Rialto couple’s eviction from their home after the 2008 financial crisis was a protected activity under California law.
Wedgewood CEO Greg Geiser filed for civil harassment restraining orders against Mercedes and Pablo Caamal, who had lost their jobs and eventually their Rialto home after the 2008 property-value downturn.
The couple had bought their home in 2006 for $450,000. Wedgewood bought the home at a foreclosure auction in 2015 for $284,000, after the Caamals fell behind on their mortgage payments.
Wedgewood attempted to evict the Caamals, who worked with the Los Angeles anti-foreclosure organization Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment.
The couple, with ACCE, set up a tent at Wedgewood’s office lobby Dec. 17, 2015, requesting a meeting with Geiser. After meeting with Wedgewood employees, the company agreed to stay the eviction proceedings for two months to give the Caamals a chance to obtain funding.
In January, 2016, the Caamals told Wedgewood they secured prequalification for a $300,000 loan, which Wedgewood found unacceptable.
The company and the couple held another meeting March 23, 2016, but Wedgewood locked the Caamals out of the property a week later.
The Caamals and ACCE organized a demonstration outside of Geiser’s Manhattan Beach home. About 27 demonstrators attended, and they dispersed after 10 p.m.
Geiser filed his restraining order against the Caamals and ACCE’s director, Peter Kuhns, two days after the demonstration. He claimed the demonstration was an assault by a mob.
Kuhns and the Caamals claimed the harassment petitions should be struck under California’s anti-Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP) law. The law protects public speech and criticism.
According to the text of the law, the Legislature enacted the law to combat “a disturbing increase in lawsuits brought primarily to chill the valid exercise of the constitutional rights of freedom of speech and petition for the redress of grievances.”
The Caamals’ motion claimed that the demonstration was about a public issue because, they claimed, Wedgewood’s business practices exemplified “one of the many stories of hundreds of thousands who lost their homes since 2008 in the Great Recession.”
Geiser dismissed the petitions before the Caamals’ anti-SLAPP motion was resolved.
During motions for attorneys’ fees, the Caamals said they were entitled to $84,000 in attorneys’ fees because they won on their anti-SLAPP motion.
Los Angeles Superior Court rejected their argument, saying the demonstration “did not concern people other than the Caamals,” because the demonstration was exclusively for them to regain the house.
Instead, the court awarded the couple with $40,000 in attorneys’ fees under a different law. The Court of Appeal affirmed the court’s decision, and the couple appealed again, to the Supreme Court.
Supreme Court’s ruling
The Supreme Court found that the law’s catch-all provision, which says the anti-SLAPP law protects “any other conduct in furtherance of the exercise of the constitutional right of petition or the constitutional right of free speech in connection with a public issue or an issue of public interest,” applies to the Rialto residents’ protest.
“(T)he demonstration was not only about the dispute over the Caamals’ long-term residence, but also about broader issues concerning unfair foreclosures and evictions,” the Supreme Court wrote in the opinion.
The court said that press coverage of the protest, including coverage from Breitbart, the Huffington Post and Wedgewood’s own press release, indicated that the Caamals’ conduct was undertaken in connection with a public issue.
Frank Sandelmann, Brett Stroud and Joshua Valene of Dinsmore & Sandelmann represented the Caamals as plaintiff and appellant.
Associate Justice Goodwin Liu wrote the unanimous opinion.
Los Angeles Superior Court numbers BS161018, BS16019 and BS161020.
Second Appellate District, Division Five, No. B279738
Supreme Court No. S262032.
Read the opinion here.