California decision chills public interest litigation

February 29, 2012 | By BRIAN HODGES

Earlier today, the California Supreme Court denied review of the case Vargas v. City of Salinas, which sought review of an outrageous, ruinous award of over $250,000 in attorneys’ fees against two individuals who brought a nonfrivolous public interest lawsuit against a city (they won a legal issue, but lost on the facts).  PLF filed an amicus letter in support of the petitioners, explaining what a dangerous precedent the case set for the practice of public interest law.  We pointed out the absurdity of applying California’s Anti-SLAPP statute (intended to punish those who file lawsuits intended to stop people from exercising First Amendment rights) as a fee shifting mechanism for cities when defending against a nonfrivolous public interest lawsuit — which is itself an exercise of First Amendment rights entitled to protection against government sanction.

The denial of review is a disappointment, but also a caution to public interest practice at the trial court level.  Unless and until California’s Anti-SLAPP law is reined in, lawsuits involving statements made by government officials during – or related to – legislative, executive, or judicial proceedings will proceed under the shadow of this fee-shifting bonanza.