OCTOBER 10, 2016 – BY KEN WHITE
I know I say it all the time, but here it is again: the system is broken, and only the generous community service of lawyers prevents people from getting ground up in it.
A few months ago I got a private request from a young woman sued for defamation. This was the core of the case: she made a sexual harassment complaint against another student after a brief relationship, and her school investigated it as required by Title IX and found in her favor. Days later, the fellow student sued her — not her university, but her — for defamation based on her participation in the school’s investigation.
Most grad students can’t afford modern litigation. I put out an immediate mini-Popehat Signal seeking pro bono help for her. Harmeet K. Dhillon and Krista L. Baughman of the Dhillon Law Group swiftly answered the call. The defendant stuck out her thumb hoping for a ride on the back of a turnip truck and wound up in a Porsche. Harmeet and Krista filed an anti-SLAPP motion, which they recently won, as they describe here.
In addition to being very significant for the defendant, it’s a win that’s very important for anti-SLAPP litigants in cases involving college administrative proceedings. California has an absolute privilege for statements made in the course of “official proceedings” — if you sue someone for slandering you during their testimony at a trial, for instance, the defendant can easily win an anti-SLAPP motion based on that privilege. This prevents a vast amount of harassing and retaliatory litigation. But until Harmeet and Krista successfully litigated this, no California court had expressly extended the “official proceeding” privilege to Title IX proceedings mandated by federal law. Now, thanks to their work, students can report conduct to school authorities without worrying that they will be drawn into frivolous but ruinous defamation litigation.
Many people are concerned that schools are conducting Title IX proceedings without adequate due process protections for the accused. This is a very legitimate complaint. But that wasn’t the issue here. Here the plaintiff wasn’t suing the school (with its money and lawyers) for disciplining him without due process. Rather, he was suing the individual complainant for defamation merely for reporting his behavior, forcing her to defend herself without the school in court. This was the absolutely right result, and consistent with other laws making reports of misconduct privileged from defamation suit. Absent this rule, whenever one college student accused another of some misconduct, the accused could retaliate with an expensive, stressful, all-encompassing lawsuit.
The case took a lot of work and some creative lawyering on a novel issue. Harmeet K. Dhillon and Krista L. Baughman did it for free. There’s no guarantee they’ll collect any fees even though they won the anti-SLAPP. But they did it because it was the right thing to do and because people like this defendant depend on people like them for justice, and they did an exceptionally good job at it. Please join me in applauding and thanking them.