Newsletter – June 2019
Malicious prosecution cases are difficult and the prevailing use of the Anti-SLAPP motion at the outset of the case is frequently a formidable barrier. When pursuing a malicious prosecution lawsuit after prevailing in a previous lawsuit filed by his former employers, a fired restaurant employed provided enough evidence – beyond just the fact that he prevailed in the previous lawsuit – to survive an anti-SLAPP motion. Cuevas-Martinez v. Sun Salt Sand, Inc. et al., No E070843 (Ct. App. June 6, 2019).
Facts of the Case
A head cook named Antonio Cuevas-Martinez was fired from his job at a restaurant called Grill-A-Burger. He then opened his own restaurant called Tony’s Burgers in a nearby city. Farouk and Salima Nurani, who owned Grill-A-Burger, sued Antonio for misappropriation of trade secrets, interference with contractual relationships, and other claims. To support their claims, the Nuranis said that Antonio had solicited their employees and customers, started using their recipes, ruined their relationships with suppliers, and stolen equipment and supplies to use at his new restaurant.
In his defense, Antonio provided evidence showing that he was an at-will employee and had no covenant not to compete or employment agreement with Grill-A-Burger. He also provided a declaration from Grill-A-Burger’s previous owners, who said that the recipe document supplied by the Nuranis was not a secret – it listed the same information as Grill-A-Burger’s menu. Further, the Nuranis admitted that they did not have official contracts with their suppliers, and the suppliers said that the Nuranis had simply stopped placing orders. Finally, the Nuranis failed to specify which customers or employees Antonio had solicited and failed to show evidence that Antonio stole equipment or supplies.
Using this evidence, Antonio successfully defended the lawsuit by winning a summary judgment motion (showing that there were no triable issues of material fact at issue) on Nurani’s claims. He then filed a malicious prosecution lawsuit against the Nuranis. The Nuranis immediately filed an anti-SLAPP motion under Code of Civil Procedure Section 425.16.
The Former Employee met his burden to Show that His Malicious Prosecution Lawsuit Had Merit
“SLAPP” stands for “strategic lawsuit against public participation”. It is a motion used to defeat malicious prosecution and defamation cases (amongst other similar types of cases) at the outset of the litigation. The Nuranis argued in their anti-SLAPP motion that Antonio’s lawsuit for malicious prosecution was an attempt to silence their right to freedom of speech. To defeat the motion and continue with his lawsuit, Antonio had to show a probability of prevailing on the merits of his malicious prosecution claim. In support, he provided the evidence he and the Nuranis presented during the summary judgment proceedings and the Nuranis’ discovery responses in the underlying case.
The trial court granted the anti-SLAPP motion in the Nuranis’ favor, relying on a case in which a plaintiff had submitted only a trial court order granting a motion for summary judgment as evidence to show that he had a probability of prevailing on the merits. Jarrow Formulas, Inc. v. LaMarche (2003) 31 Cal.4th 728. On appeal, however, the California Court of Appeal acknowledged that Antonio had provided far more evidence, and more meaningful evidence, than just an order granting summary judgment. As a result, the trial court should have reviewed that evidence to see if Antonio’s claim had merit.
When the Court of Appeal reviewed the evidence, it found that the Nuranis had claimed Antonio’s intentional interference with contractual relationships but admitted that they had no contracts with suppliers. They pursued this claim for more than 20 months while knowing that the claim was baseless. In addition, the Nuranis claimed Antonio’s misappropriation of trade secrets, with no evidence to support their belief that the Grill-A-Burger recipe document contained trade secrets. In fact, the previous Grill-A-Burger owners said that the document was no secret at all. In sum, Antonio had showed that his malicious prosecution claim had the minimal merit needed to survive an anti-SLAPP motion.
To defeat an Anti-SLAPP motion, a plaintiff pursuing a malicious prosecution cause of action must not simply rely on an order granting summary judgment in the underlying case. In effect, the plaintiff must provide sufficient admissible evidence to meet the elements of a malicious prosecution claim. Here, Tony’s Burgers owner Antonio provided that evidence in the form of declarations and discovery responses, and so the Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s dismissal and allowed him to pursue his malicious prosecution action against the Nuranis and Grill-A-Burger.