California CEO took to social media to levy accusation
A man filed a lawsuit seeking damages against a woman who posted a tweet directed at his employer that alleged that he was a racist person who was engaging in cyberbullying. They both filed complaints accusing each other of libel.
The defendant in the case of Billauer v. Escobar-Eck was president and chief executive officer of a San Diego-based land use and strategic planning firm. On a church’s behalf, she assisted in submitting to San Diego City an application for the development of a church campus.
The plaintiff resided in San Diego and worked for Wells Fargo & Company. He owned property in the area of the proposed project. As a neighborhood activist, he spoke out against it at community meetings on the basis of a “housing crisis.”
The defendant attended public meetings for the project as the church’s representative. At a Zoom meeting, she was making a presentation to a community planning group when an unknown person sent her private messages via Zoom’s chat function.
The messages accused the defendant of dishonesty and said that the sender would ensure that she would be “sent back to where [she] came from.” The defendant later found out that the plaintiff sent these messages.
The plaintiff operated an account on Twitter and contributed to equivalent accounts on Instagram and Facebook. These three accounts were public and were against the project. He made numerous social media posts referring to the defendant.
The defendant posted a tweet directed at the plaintiff’s employer. She claimed that the plaintiff was a racist person who was engaging in cyberbullying. This prompted the plaintiff to file a complaint suing her for damages. He argued that her tweet amounted to libel and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
The defendant filed a demurrer and a motion to strike the plaintiff’s allegations. She also brought a cross-complaint alleging libel based on four posts made in December 2020, in February 2021, and in April 2021.
The plaintiff filed a motion under the anti-SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) law. The trial court denied his anti-SLAPP motion. It found that, while the anti-SLAPP law protected the plaintiff’s alleged posts, the defendant was able to show that her libel claim would probably succeed on its merits.
Defendant showed probability of success
The plaintiff appealed. The California Court of Appeal for the Fourth District, First Division upheld the trial court’s decision denying the anti-SLAPP motion. The defendant showed that her libel claim would probably succeed, while the plaintiff failed to defeat her claim, the appellate court concluded.
The plaintiff disregarded the truth of his posts, the appellate court said. According to the appellate court, the plaintiff’s direct message to the defendant:
- served as compelling evidence that hostility motivated him
- contained racist undertones
- threatened the defendant personally
- said that he would make sure that she would get sent back to where she came from
- “reek[ed] of vengeance”