The Volokh Conspiracy
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From Peterson v. Harris, decided Friday by the California Court of Appeal, in an opinion by L.A. Superior Court Judge Audra Mori, joined by Justice Audrey Collins and L.A. Superior Court Judge Helen Zukin:
In January 2021, plaintiff Sabrina Peterson posted a video and messages to her Instagram account accusing defendants Clifford and Tameka Harris (entertainers who perform under the stage names "TI" and "Tiny") of various forms of sexual and physical abuse. Peterson also accused Clifford of previously threatening her with a handgun. Clifford, Tameka, and Tameka's friend, codefendant Shekinah Jones Anderson, responded to Peterson through their social media accounts.
Peterson sued for libel, false light, and intentional infliction of emotional distress (among other torts); the Harrises filed an anti-SLAPP motion, but the Court of Appeal concluded that Peterson's claim can go forward. First, Peterson's factual allegations:
Peterson is an award-winning business coach, entrepreneur, and founder of Glam University, a company designed to "coach women who are interested in entrepreneurship." The Harrises are well-known musicians, producers, and television personalities. Codefendant Anderson is a reality television personality who has appeared on a television show covering the Harrises.
At some point during the parties' friendship, Peterson got into an altercation with Clifford's assistant. Responding to the altercation, Clifford placed a gun to Peterson's head and said, "'Bitch I'll kill you.'" Peterson ceased communicating with Clifford but maintained her friendship with Tameka.
In January 2021, Peterson was the victim of a carjacking. To cope with this traumatic experience, on January 26, 2021, Peterson "shared her traumatic experience with [Clifford] to a group of her followers" on Instagram. As established by the evidentiary submissions discussed below, Peterson also posted messages she had received from other women accusing Clifford and Tameka of various forms of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse. Clifford, Tameka, and Anderson issued various statements responding to Peterson's Instagram posts.
In every cause of action, the complaint alleged that Clifford, Tameka, and Anderson "posted certain statements on the public internet site Instagram to their more than 23.6 million followers" and sought to hold all three liable for the statements. The complaint identifies the posts or public statements as follows:
[1.] The Posts on the Harrises' Instagram Accounts
On January 26, 2021 (the same day Peterson revealed the prior incident involving Clifford), Tameka posted to her Instagram account a photograph of Clifford standing alongside Peterson's eight-year-old son. Attached to the photograph was the following message:
"'Hold up… So you want your abuser to train your sons? He was just uncle 2 years ago … now when did you say my husband assaulted you? Did you change your mind or change it back? What's up wit you today Pooh? … You strange. Everybody know you been special…."
Tameka's Instagram account has 6.6 million followers.
In a statement released to the public January 29, 2021, the Harrises "'emphatically den[ied] in the strongest way possible the egregiously appalling allegations being made against them by [ ] Peterson." The same day, Clifford posted a video to his Instagram account in which he stated:
"'Whatever we ever have done has been done with consensual adults …. [¶] We ain't never forced nobody, we ain't never drugged nobody against their will. We ain't never held nobody against their will. We never made nobody do anything. We never [sexually] trafficked any[body]…. [¶] I also want you to know there's evil at play…. We've had a history in dealing with the particular individual in question.'"
Clifford's Instagram account has 13.5 million followers.
[2.] The Post on Anderson's Instagram Account
Also on January 29, 2021, Anderson posted a video to her Instagram account. In the video, Anderson stated:
"'She's looking for fucking attention. She wants [Tameka]. She has sex with [Tameka], she wants [Tameka] to be her girlfriend. Now listen, this is my thing, [s]he came out and [Clifford] pulled a gun on her….
"'She has a problem. But she ain't talking about how she fucked Tamika [sic] too. I said what I said. Why she ain't talking about she done sucked his dick and fucked her in her pussy…. I'm trying to figure out why she ain't tell ya'll about how much pussy she ate? Why she didn't tell ya'll about she wanted the women who used to go recruit the bitches for him to fuck?
"'What's up? … Go ask her why [she] ain't tell you she didn't get fucked and she went to the apartment? Why she didn't tell ya'll if she done had somebody that did too?'"
Anderson's Instagram account has 3.5 million followers….
[In response to the anti-SLAPP motion, the Harrises submitted] court records from a criminal matter involving Peterson in 2011. Those records reflected a guilty plea [to a federal false statements charge] in which Peterson admitted she had "denied know[ing] an individual named 'P. Denis,' when in fact she knew of and had lived with [this] individual." …
The court concluded that Peterson's speech was on a matter of public interest, so the anti-SLAPP statute potentially applied:
Clifford and Tameka are accomplished musicians and producers, and both have a television show covering their lives. Peterson herself is a successful entrepreneur and business coach who has been featured in well-known publications. The controversy under which this case arose directly concerns gun violence and sexual abuse by those in the entertainment industry. The many articles covering this controversy clearly establish the public's interest in it.
Even assuming the statements did not implicate a public issue or issue of public interest, they are still protected as activity encouraging participation "in the context of an ongoing controversy." Peterson voluntarily thrust herself into the public eye by accusing Clifford of gun violence and the Harrises of various forms of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse. All of the statements appearing in the complaint were responsive to Peterson's own public revelations against the Harrises. As such, Peterson has "subjected herself to inevitable scrutiny … by the public and the media."
Finally, the activity of Clifford, Tameka, and Anderson all occurred in a public forum for purposes of section 425.16, subdivision (e)(3). With one exception, all of their statements were published on Instagram and could be readily accessed by 3.5 to 13.5 million followers.
But the court also held that Peterson's case could move forward, because her allegations were legally adequate (their factual accuracy may end up being a matter for the jury). As to defamation, the court reasoned:
Peterson marshaled evidence suggesting both statements were provably false. As to the implied statement Peterson had lied about the gun incident, Peterson averred she had endured the "traumatic experience" involving Clifford placing a gun to her head, and she stated the Harrises' denials were "false." The Harrises offered no evidence contradicting these averments. Viewed in context, the Harrises' statements implied a provably true or false statement that Peterson had lied about the gun incident.
The Harrises do not discuss any of this evidence and instead argue that their statements that Peterson had lied were in fact true. Citing Peterson's prior criminal matter in 2011, the Harrises contend Peterson "is, in fact, a proven liar." But while Peterson's criminal records may establish Peterson lied about something in 2011, they do not conclusively establish that she lied about Clifford threatening her with a gun.
Regarding the salacious sexual accusations, Peterson declared she had "never engaged in sexual acts with either of the Harrises nor have I ever recruited woman [sic] to engage in sexual acts with the Harrises." These allegations are also capable of being proven true or false….
We also conclude that, contrary to the Harrises' arguments, Peterson made the requisite showing of actual malice as a limited public figure….
The court concluded that the false light claims were merely "cumulative [of her defamation claim] and will add nothing to her claims for relief." But the court also concluded that her intentional infliction of emotional distress claim can continue, as to the allegations of her sexual conduct with the Harrises:
[W]e agree with the Harrises that the implied statement Peterson had lied about the gun incident, even if insulting or unflattering, did not constitute extreme or outrageous conduct. However, the salacious sexual accusations against Peterson, made in graphic detail, may properly be considered extreme and outrageous by a factfinder.
UPDATE: I should note, that though this strikes me as generally a victory for the plaintiff—the libel claim seems to be the center of the case—it's an expensive victory. The court threw out the trade libel, intentional interference with prospective economic advantage, negligent interference with prospective economic advantage claims, and negligent infliction of emotional distress claims, as well as (as noted above) part of the intentional infliction of emotional distress claim. The dismissed claims are largely duplicative of the libel claim, I think, which is why I didn't dwell on them in the post (a post that's long enough already). But because, under California law, a partial dismissal on an anti-SLAPP motion entitles the defendant to part of the fees, Peterson is likely to have to pay defendants a hefty sum:
The Harrises are entitled to fees and costs incurred both in the trial court and on appeal in moving to strike the claims on which they prevailed. On remand, the trial court is directed to determine the amount.
That's the downside of combining strong claims and weak claims in California lawsuits that are brought over speech on matters of public concern (and that are therefore subject to the anti-SLAPP statute).