Plaintiff David Williams and defendant Kelley Cahill met through a dating website and developed a romantic relationship lasting approximately one year, during which they bought a house under Cahill’s name to remodel and opened a joint bank account for common expenses. Cahill made the down payment on their home, and the two agreed to split the mortgage equally. Cahill later refinanced the mortgage and took out $125,000 in equity, of which Williams received only $7,000. When the relationship ended, Williams encouraged Cahill to sell the house, but she refused, instead refinancing the mortgage a second time and pulling out an additional $200,000 in equity, none of which went to Williams. Cahill claimed that she first learned that Williams was still married when she received a letter from Williams’ oldest son and later met with Williams’ wife, although Williams contended that he told Cahill he was separated but not divorced. According to Williams’ wife, Cahill admitted that she knew Williams was not divorced and that she owed him approximately $50,000.
After her relationship with Williams ended, Cahill posted numerous online warnings to women not to date Williams because he lied about being divorced and exploited women financially. Cahill sent emails to a woman Williams was dating, posted YouTube videos and also participated in a segment on ABC’s “20/20” addressing the dangers of online dating, in which Williams was portrayed as a con man who left Cahill in financial ruin.
Williams sued Cahill for libel, and Cahill moved to strike his complaint pursuant to California’s anti-SLAPP statute. Although the trial court found that Williams’ libel cause of action arose out of protected activity, it denied Cahill’s motion because Williams established a probability of prevailing on the claim. Cahill appealed, and the California Court of Appeal affirmed.
California’s anti-SLAPP statute requires a court to engage in a two-step process. It first decides whether the defendant has made a threshold showing that the challenged cause of action arises from protected activity. The court then must then determine whether the plaintiff has demonstrated a probability of prevailing on the claim. First, as the trial court did, the appellate court concluded that Cahill met her initial burden of showing that Williams’ claim arose from protected activity, because Cahill’s statements concerned an issue of public interest by contributing to the public discussion on the dangers of online dating. Just as the trial court had, however, the appellate court held that Williams had presented sufficient prima facie evidence to establish a probability that he would prevail based on Cahill’s statements in the “20/20” episode.
The court noted that the “20/20” episode stated or implied at least three provably false factual assertions: (1) that Williams induced Cahill to enter into a relationship by misrepresenting that he was divorced and continuing to conceal the truth, (2) that Williams exploited Cahill financially and caused her financial ruin, and (3) that Williams had a long history of preying on women in the same manner. Next, the court found that Williams presented substantial evidence to prove that each of the assertions was false and that Cahill failed to offer sufficient evidence that the statements were true. Last, the appellate court found that Cahill failed to exercise reasonable care in determining the truth or falsity of the statements, which was apparent on their face.
The appellate court rejected Cahill’s argument that the anti-SLAPP statute required the trial court to determine whether Williams had established a probability of prevailing with respect to each of the defamatory statements alleged in his complaint (including her online posts, the YouTube video and her email to another woman), finding that the statute authorizes courts to strike only an entire cause of action, not particular allegations within a cause of action. The court also rejected Cahill’s argument that the parties’ settlement of the claims related to the “20/20” episode while the case was on appeal prevented the appellate court from considering those statements. Consistent with principles of appellate practice, the court considered only matters that were part of the record at the time the judgment was entered. Accordingly, the court affirmed the trial court’s decision to deny Cahill’s anti-SLAPP suit.