Under California Civil Procedure Code section 425.16, a defendant sued for exercising its constitutional rights may assert that the action is Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation (“SLAPP”) and move to strike the complaint on that basis. Section 425.16, also known as the “anti-SLAPP statute,” when properly invoked, can be a powerful defense tool because it imposes an automatic stay on discovery until a ruling on the motion, potentially forces the plaintiff to establish with evidence a “probability” that plaintiff will prevail on its claim, and exposes the plaintiff to a fee award if the motion is granted. The invocation of the anti-SLAPP statute in cases involving trade secrets disputes between business competitors will most likely be futile, however, as a recent decision by the California Court of Appeal indicates.

In World Financial Group, Inc. v. HBW Insurance & Financial Service, Inc. et al., 2009 WL 1019118 (Cal. App. 2d Dist. April 16, 2009), plaintiff World Financial Group, Inc. (“WFG”), a company that provides insurance, pension and financial services, sued its direct competitor, HBW Insurance & Financial Services, Inc. and a number of former WFG associates (collectively, “defendants”) for, among others, trade secret misappropriation and use of WFG’s confidential information to solicit WFG’s associates and customers. 

Defendants filed an anti-SLAPP motion, arguing that all of WFG’s claims were based on defendants’ speech and conduct in furtherance of their right of free speech in connection with a public issue. Specifically, defendants claimed that their speech and conduct involved the pursuit of lawful employment, workforce mobility, and free competition, all of which are matters of public interest and protected policy. Both the trial court and appeals court disagreed, holding that defendants failed to meet their burden of showing that WFG’s complaint arose from speech and conduct in connection with a public issue. As the Court of Appeal explained, “[A]ll of the allegedly wrongful conduct and speech that plaintiffs attribute to defendants was committed in a business capacity, and was directed at a competitor’s associates and customers for the sole purpose of promoting the competing business as a superior employer and provider of products and services.” 

The Court of Appeal also rejected defendants’ strategy of couching their argument in terms of society’s general interest in the subject matter of the dispute—lawful employment, free competition and employee mobility—rather than focusing on the specific speech or conduct at issue in the complaint. “The focus of the anti-SLAPP statute must be on the specific nature of the speech rather than on generalities that might be abstracted from it.” Applying the statute in the general manner defendants proposed, the Court of Appeal observed, would mean that “every case alleging breach of a noncompetition agreement or the related misappropriation of trade secrets would be categorically subject to the anti-SLAPP statute,” effectively eviscerating the unfair business practices laws.

Finally, even if defendants had argued that the specific speech and conduct at issue was protected, that argument would still be unavailing because the statements by which defendants attempted to solicit employees and customers were not of public interest, were irrelevant to WFG’s claims, and were merely incidental to the conduct upon which the complaint is based.

If defendants’ immediate goal was to delay discovery, then the use of the anti-SLAPP statute essentially accomplished that objective—for the short term.  Beyond that, use of the anti-SLAPP statute to strike garden-variety misappropriation and non-solicitation claims, as confirmed in the World Financial Group decision, will likely be unsuccessful.

The Seyfarth Trade Secrets, Computer Fraud & Non-Competes practice group attorneys congratulate their colleagues, Brian Ashe, Erik von Zeipel, Daniel Sable, Kurt Kappes, and Timothy Nelson, who represented WFG at the trial and appellate levels!