The Cynical Trick of Using Lawsuits to Quiet Critics and Watchdogs Could Be Harder to Pull off in the Future

The House Judiciary Committee soon commences hearings on the SPEAK FREE Act for Federal Anti-SLAPP protection. The legislation has obtained an impressive level of bipartisan support in recent years and, currently, has 32 co-sponsors. SLAPP stands for Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation. It refers to frivolous legal action intended to stifle criticism.

One of the case studies before congress is the story of Los Angeles Jewish Home for the Aging (LAJHA), who sued Val West and her friend David Dizenfeld after they assisted Val’s mother Evelyn. The case was summarized succinctly by Law360:

West's mother, an 86-year-old cancer survivor and diabetic, began renting a room at Los Angeles Jewish Home for the Aging's Eisenberg Village campus in early 2008. According to a court brief, West’s mother witnessed a series of “disquieting incidents,” including missing medication, evidence of Medicare fraud and attempts by staff to open her mail.

To address her concerns, the brief said, West, her mother and Dizenfeld met repeatedly with LAJHA staff and enlisted the help of an elder care attorney from Bet Tzedek Legal Services.They also filed more than seven complaints with state and federal regulators.

On Feb.10, 2010, a day after the California Department of Social Services, acting on West and her mother's complaints, had an investigative visit at the elder care facility that resulted in multiple deficiency citations being issued, LAJHA filed its lawsuit against West and Dizenfeld, including for defamation for communication with their own attorney. The trial court ruled that LAJHA's defamation claim violated California's anti-SLAPP statute and was stricken, with the rest of its lawsuit subsequently dismissed in its entirety.

Jewish Home’s SLAPP, and many similar cases, are crucial tests of free speech and justice in America. While this case is not well-known, this important legislation's connection to stories regularly covered by the mainstream media. For example, Trump University's consumer fraud issues are regularly discussed, but not Trump's counter-suit for defamation against the plaintiff, which was ruled a violation of Anti-SLAPP law, with fees and costs awarded against the Republican candidate. 

28 states currently have anti-SLAPP statutory protections, but lawmakers are pushing for a federal law that would apply to all states.

You can read more about SLAPP suits, and the fight to expand protections against them here.

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