Case of the Month – Paglia & Associates Construction, Inc., et al. v. V.J. Hamilton

In a recent legal development, the Second Appellate District has upheld a trial court order denying a homeowner’s defensive motion arguing that her online posts were protected free speech.  The case revolves around a dispute between homeowner and her contractor, shedding light on the line between free speech and libel.  The motion unsuccessfully asserted that online posts targeting a private individual and his business were protected activity.

The origins of the legal battle trace back to the homeowner’s dissatisfaction with the contractor’s work. The homeowner took to the internet, filing a complaint with the state licensing board and launching a series of disparaging attacks via a blog and on Yelp from 2019 until early 2021. In response, the contractor initiated legal action, suing the homeowner for libel, alleging the homeowner’s blog and Yelp postings were false and defamatory.

The homeowner, seeking to dismiss the lawsuit, filed an anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) motion, arguing that her online posts were protected as litigation activity, citing her complaint to the licensing board. In California, an anti-SLAPP motion is a legal procedure that allows a defendant to quickly dismiss a lawsuit deemed to be frivolously filed to chill the defendant’s exercise of free speech or petition rights.

The critical question at the heart of the matter was whether the homeowner’s online posts qualified as protected litigation activity. The court held that for the litigation privilege to apply, there must be a substantial connection between the speech and the ongoing litigation. In this case, the homeowner’s posts fell short of meeting this criterion. Unlike communications directed to board officials or filings with the contractors’ board, her online messages were mere public denunciations of the contractor.

The court clarified that utilizing the internet to express one’s opinions is a fundamental right for every American. However, this right does not extend to defaming private individuals without consequences. The ruling emphasized that if individuals choose to defame private figures online, they do so at their own risk.

The decision sets a precedent by highlighting the importance of a tangible link between online speech and ongoing legal proceedings for protection under the litigation privilege. Merely expressing opinions online, without a clear connection to the legal process, does not shield individuals from defamation claims. In an era where online platforms serve as powerful tools for expression, this case underscores the responsibility that comes with exercising free speech. The ruling encourages individuals to express their opinions responsibly while recognizing the legal consequences that may arise when crossing the line into defamation, even in the realm of digital discourse.