California Labor and Employment Defense Blog

Internal Sexual Harassment Complaints are Protected by Anti-SLAPP statute -- Aber v. Comstock

California's so-called anti-SLAPP statute, CCP section 425.16 et seq., is a powerful weapon for quickly disposing of lawsuit based on allegations that arise out of free speech or "public participation."   To proceed with such a lawsuit the plaintiff must present admissible evidence establishing that he is "likely to prevail."   Moreover, he must normally make this heightened showing at the start of the case without the benefit of any discovery.  Most lawsuits which are covered by the anti-SLAPP statute fail to survive this rigorous test and are dismissed, which also triggers an obligation to pay the other side's attorney fees.  

In Aber v. Comstock the Califonia Court of Appeal has significantly expanded the reach of the anti-SLAPP statute by extending its protection to purely internal complaints of sexual harassment.  As the court explained:

 Aber argued that her statements to Bush, the Kluwer HR manager, are protected under section 425.16, subdivision (e)(1) and (e)(2), as statements prior to litigation or other official proceedings. Her theory was that the statements were necessary to address a commonly used affirmative defense by an employer in a sexual harassment case—a defense, not incidentally, that Kluwer has in fact asserted against Aber here.  We agree.

As a result, the accused harasser's lawsuit for defamation based on these internal allegations was dismissed under the anti-SLAPP procedure.  Aber thus serves as a cautionary tale to any employer or co-employee who might otherwise be tempted to file a cross-complaint against a sexual harassment accuser -- unless your counterclaim is exceptionally strong on its face it will likely backfire and result in liability for attorney fees under the anti-SLAPP statute.    

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