Minnesota's Anti-SLAPP Law: Combat Unfounded Defamation Lawsuits

Minnesota’s Anti-SLAPP Law: A Powerful Tool to Combat against Unfounded Defamation Lawsuits

Lawmakers have recognized that defamation lawsuits (e.g. claims libel or slander) are sometimes used as tools to harass and intimidate citizens who appeal to their government for assistance. Hence, many states, including Minnesota, have enacted laws protecting citizens against strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPP).

Minnesota’s Anti-SLAPP law:

  1. Immediately freezes discovery once it is invoked;
  2. Provides a strong procedural framework to determine early on in the matter whether the defamation claimant may proceed; and
  3. Provides the possibility to recover attorney’s fees.

This framework affords the defendant with at least a fair chance of ending the defamation suit early and before expending the considerable attorney’s fees needed to navigate a case through discovery and the Summary Judgment stage.

The Minnesota Anti-SLAPP statute explains that “[t]his [Anti-SLAPP] section applies to any motion in a judicial proceeding to dispose of a judicial claim on the grounds that the claim materially relates to an act of the moving party that involves public participation.” Minn. Stat. § 554.02, subd. 1.

While an Anti-SLAPP motion is filed along with a Motion to Dismiss or Motion for Summary Judgment, the typical standards associated with those motions do not apply. The recent Minnesota Supreme Court case of Leiendecker v. Asian Women United of Minnesota extensively addressed the law and procedure for Anti-SLAPP. Per Leiendecker, “The first step in evaluating an anti-SLAPP motion is to determine whether the party seeking dismissal under the anti-SLAPP statutes has made a threshold showing that the underlying claim materially relates to an act of the moving party that involves public participation.” 848 N.W.2d 224, 229 (Minn. 2014), as modified (Sept. 3, 2014) (internal quotations omitted).

“Once the moving party has made its threshold showing, the second step is to determine whether the party responding to the motion has produced clear and convincing evidence that the moving party is not entitled to immunity.” Id. at 229 (citing Minn.Stat. § 554.02, subd. 2(3)). The Court explains the high burden this entails for the responding party:

For summary judgment motions, a court evaluates the evidence to determine whether there are any genuine issues of material fact and whether either of the parties is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. An anti-SLAPP motion, by contrast, requires the court to make a finding about whether “the responding party has produced clear and convincing evidence that the acts of the moving party” are not immune….[T]he responding party carries three distinct burdens “on the motion”: the burden of proof, the burden of production, and the burden of persuasion. The burden of persuasion, in particular, describes the “obligation to persuade the trier of fact of the truth of a proposition.” [T]he responding party bears the burden to persuade the trier of fact—here, the district court—of the truth of a proposition—here, that the acts of the moving party are not immune—and if it does not do so, then the court must “grant the motion and dismiss the judicial claim.” Under the anti-SLAPP statutes, therefore, the court is required to dismiss the claim, even in the face of genuine issues of material fact, if the responding party has failed to carry its burden of persuasion that the moving party is not immune by clear and convincing evidence.

Id. at 231. (internal citations omitted, emphasis added) Thus, “the anti-SLAPP statutes require the responding party to produce evidence to defeat an anti-SLAPP motion and that, in evaluating such a motion, the district court must make a finding regarding whether the responding party has met its burden to show by clear and convincing evidence that the acts of the moving party are not immune.” Id. at 233.

Having made the initial showing, the burden then shifts to the party pursuing the defamation claim to persuade the Court and produce clear and convincing evidence that the opposition’s actions are not immune from liability because they are either “a tort or a violation of a person’s constitutional rights.”

The clear-and-convincing standard for evidence is a high bar:

“Clear and convincing proof” means exactly what is suggested by the ordinary meanings of the terms making up the phrase. Satisfaction of this standard requires more than a preponderance of the evidence but less than proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Clear and convincing proof will be shown where the truth of the facts asserted is “highly probable.” Weber v. Anderson, 269 N.W.2d 892, 895 (Minn. 1978).

Clearly, when a citizen is served with a defamation lawsuit it is important that their attorney is familiar and experienced with the powerful provisions of Minnesota’s Anti-SLAPP law.