California decision chills public interest litigation

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.