Court Slaps Down SLAPP Suit

Lawyers Fraudulent Billing is not Pre-Litigation Protected Petitioning Activity

Post 4772

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Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP suits) are meritless lawsuits designed to harass parties for engaging in protected activities (the right of petition or free speech). A party can move to dismiss a SLAPP suit by filing an anti-SLAPP motion. The movant must show the purported SLAPP suit arises from its protected activities; if shown, the respondent can defeat the motion by showing its lawsuit has merit.

In OC Media Tower, L.P. et al. v. Louis Galuppo et al., G062372, California Court of Appeals, (March 28, 2024) the Court of Appeals resolved the dispute.

FACTS

Plaza Del Sol Real Estate Trust (Plaza) made $67 million in loans to OC Media Tower, L.P., and OCR Land LLC (collectively, OC Media). The loans were secured by deeds of trust and promissory notes in which OC Media agreed to pay Plaza’s attorney fees for any needed collection efforts. OC Media defaulted on its loans. Plaza agreed to accept a lower payoff amount (about $50.5 million), contingent on OC Media selling its encumbered real estate. During escrow, attorney Galuppo submitted an invoice stating its fees (about $25,000) for its client Plaza. At the close of escrow, Plaza was paid the agreed upon payoff amount and Galuppo was paid its stated attorney fees.

Plaza later sued OC Media for fraud and other causes of action. Plaza alleged it learned after the close of escrow that OC Media had made false statements about its real estate sale to induce Plaza to accept less than what it was owed. OC Media filed a cross-complaint against Plaza and Galuppo for fraud and another cause of action. OC Media alleged Galuppo’s attorney fees were false and unsupported.

Galuppo filed an anti-SLAPP motion to dismiss OC Media’s cross-complaint. Galuppo asserted its invoice stating Plaza’s attorney fees was a prelitigation demand for payment (protected petitioning activity). The trial court denied Galuppo’s anti-SLAPP motion because “an allegedly false invoice for payment generally does not constitute petitioning activity under the anti-SLAPP statute.”

DISCUSSION

In an anti-SLAPP motion, the trial court should distinguish between speech or petitioning activity that is mere evidence related to liability and liability that is based on speech or petitioning activity.

The Court of Appeals found that the record does not support Galuppo’s assertion that its invoice was a prelitigation demand for payment. Further, the basis of OC Media’s cross-complaint is not that Galuppo made a tortious demand for payment. Rather, OC Media claims the amount of attorney fees actually billed by Galuppo was fraudulent.

Appellants claimed the demand for $24,433.08 in attorney fees was a communication preparatory to and in anticipation of filing litigation. In an anti-SLAPP motion, the movant bears the burden of establishing the challenged claims arise from its protected activity. The essential elements of fraud that give rise to a cause of action for deceit or intentional misrepresentation are:

  1. misrepresentation (false representation, concealment, or nondisclosure);
  2. knowledge of falsity (or scienter);
  3. intent to defraud, i.e., to induce reliance;
  4. actual and justifiable reliance; and
  5. resulting damage.

The Cross-Complaint and Anti-SLAPP Motion

OC Media and OCR Land LLC sued Plaza, Galuppo, and Morris Cerullo World Evangelism for fraud and the common count of money had and received. OC Media alleged that prior to the close of escrow it had asked Galuppo to provide the amount of attorneys’ fees and costs that Plaza had incurred in connection with the sale of the Property at 625 N. Main. OC Media stated that on October 16, 2020, Galuppo transmitted by email a document purporting to be an invoice through which it was represented that Plaza had incurred $24,433.08 in legal fees. OC Media alleged that the invoice was fraudulent.

The trial court denied appellants’ anti-SLAPP motions to dismiss or strike OC Media’s cross-complaint in a written order. Cross-defendants did not demonstrate litigation was genuinely contemplated and was more than a possibility at the time the invoice amount was communicated. Cross-defendants failed to establish that cross-complainants’ claims or the other challenged portions of the cross-complaint arise from cross-defendants’ protected petitioning activity.

Mr. Galuppo’s subjective intent to file a lawsuit in the event OC Media breached its contractual obligations was merely theoretical (i.e., it was not under serious consideration); therefore, Galuppo’s e-mailing of the invoice to the title insurance company was not protected prelitigation activity under the anti-SLAPP statute.

There are simply no documents from Galuppo – or any other attorney representing Plaza-directed to Harrah, OC Media, or its counsel attempting to resolve outstanding legal disputes. Therefore, the Court of Appeals rejected Galuppo’s claim that the invoice was part of an ongoing series of prelitigation demands communicated to OC Media as part of a lawsuit that was under serious consideration.

OC Media’s cross-complaint is not a SLAPP suit. The judgment was affirmed.

ZALMA OPINION

Galuppo attempted to avoid the position of a cross-defendant by filing a SLAPP motion by claiming his bill to his client for the sale of real property was protected petitioning activity. In fact the Court of Appeals noted that the people suing Galuppo used his billing as evidence of fraud. A false and fraudulent lawyers bill is not a protected activity subject to dismissing what is claimed to be a SLAPP suit.

(c) 2024 Barry Zalma & ClaimSchool, Inc.

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About Barry Zalma

An insurance coverage and claims handling author, consultant and expert witness with more than 48 years of practical and court room experience.
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