Anti-SLAPP and harassment claims
Does the anti-SLAPP law apply to harassment claims in workplaces that have a medical peer review process for making employment decisions?
On March 11, 2015, the Fourth District Court of Appeal reviewed a case in which a doctor alleged she was subjected to harassment, discrimination, retaliation, and other wrongful conduct at the hospital where she worked. (DeCambre v. Rady Children’s Hospital-San Diego (Cal. App. 4th Dist. Mar. 11, 2015) 2015 Cal. App. LEXIS 224.) The doctor sought relief for harassment she alleged occurred through her employment along with a decision to not renew her contract to provide medical services resulting from a peer review proceeding.
The trial court dismissed the case early in the litigation following a special motion to strike (anti-SLAPP motion). Such a motion is designed to expedite the early dismissal of lawsuits aimed at preventing citizens from exercising their free speech or petition rights. Statements made in connection with an official proceeding authorized by law are one of these rights. The trial court based its decision on the doctor’s request for lost earnings, employment benefits, and staff privileges, all resulting from the nonrenewal of her contract. On appeal, the doctor contended that her claims arose from conduct outside of the peer review proceeding.
The court of appeal began by reviewing the California Supreme Court decision establishing that medical peer review involves the exercise of rights protected by the anti-SLAPP law. (Kibler v. Northern Inyo County Local Hospital Dist. (2006) 39 Cal.4th 192.) In the Kibler case, the high court determined that statements made during such a review are in connection with an official proceeding authorized by law. The court in DeCambre concluded that the decision to not renew the doctor’s contract was the result of the peer review proceeding. As such, this decision is protected by the anti-SLAPP law.
After making this conclusion, the court of appeal looked at the doctor’s various claims to determine whether each of them were based on the peer review proceeding. This review involves a focus on the defendant’s alleged conduct rather than the resulting damage.
With respect to the doctor’s harassment claim, the alleged conduct included provision of a housing allowance less than promised, denial of adequate support staff, and racially discriminatory statements made by support staff and other physicians throughout her employment. This conduct took place largely outside of and was unrelated to the peer review proceeding concerning her contract. Accordingly, the court of appeal decided that the trial court erred in dismissing the harassment claim.
As to the discrimination and retaliation claims, the court in DeCambre found that the contract decision was central. Indeed, such claims require evidence of an “adverse employment action,” which in this case was the decision not to renew the contract. Consequently, the court of appeal decided that these claims triggered the anti-SLAPP law. After determining that the doctor failed to show a probability of succeeding on the merits, the appellate court affirmed the trial court’s decision as to these claims.
This decision affirms the relevance of the anti-SLAPP law to decisions made as part of a medical peer review proceeding. In order to avoid a special motion to strike, an employee’s claim must be principally based on conduct that occurred outside of such a proceeding.