Ninth Circuit affirms district court’s denial of ZoomInfo’s anti-SLAPP motion, holding that class plaintiff’s claims against ZoomInfo fell within public interest exemption to California anti-SLAPP statute.
Kim Martinez, a California citizen and political director for a local union, brought a proposed class action against ZoomInfo, an online directory of professionals and their employment information, for providing “teaser profiles” containing individuals’ information along with subscription links without obtaining the individuals’ permission or compensating them. Martinez alleged that because ZoomInfo did not obtain her permission or compensate her, ZoomInfo is using her name and likeness to promote its product in violation of California’s Right of Publicity statute and her common law privacy and intellectual property rights. ZoomInfo moved to dismiss Martinez’s complaint and strike it under the anti-SLAPP statute. The district court denied both motions.
On appeal, the Ninth Circuit addressed two issues: (1) whether the district court erred in concluding that Martinez has standing to sue and (2) whether the district court erred in denying ZoomInfo’s anti-SLAPP motion. On the question of standing, the court explained that Martinez has plausibly pleaded that she suffered sufficient injury to establish standing to sue but clarified that the court took no position on whether, after discovery and further examination, Martinez would still meet the standing requirements.
The district court denied ZoomInfo’s anti-SLAPP motion, reasoning that the speech at issue was commercial in nature and therefore not subject to the anti-SLAPP statute and that Martinez could establish a reasonable probability of prevailing on the merits of her claims. The Ninth Circuit agreed with the holding of the district court but arrived at that conclusion differently. The Ninth Circuit explained that, before engaging in the merits analysis, a court must consider any claims by the plaintiff that a statutory exemption contained in California Code of Civil Procedure section 425.17 applies. If Martinez’s action satisfies either exemption, her lawsuit cannot be struck under the anti-SLAPP statute. The two exemptions under section 425.17 provide that the anti-SLAPP statute does not apply to any action brought solely in the public interest or on behalf of the general public or to causes of action arising from commercial speech.
The Ninth Circuit explained that a case is brought solely in the public interest or on behalf of the general public if three conditions are met: (1) the plaintiff does not seek any relief greater than or different from the relief sought for the general public or a class of which the plaintiff is a member; (2) the action, if successful, would enforce an important right affecting the public interest and would confer a significant benefit, whether pecuniary or nonpecuniary, on the general public or a large class of persons; (3) private enforcement is necessary and places a disproportionate financial burden on the plaintiff in relation to the plaintiff’s stake in the matter. Despite ZoomInfo’s arguments to the contrary, the Ninth Circuit found that Martinez satisfied all three conditions.
As to the first condition, the court rejected ZoomInfo’s argument that, by seeking relief that may require an individualized determination (i.e., damages), Martinez is seeking “personal relief.” Seeking individualized relief is permissible under the public interest exemption because—as clarified by the California Supreme Court—the bar on any personal relief prohibits seeking a narrower advantage for a particular plaintiff. Martinez requested all relief on behalf of the putative class and has not requested any additional relief that would not apply to some or all of the class. Martinez’s complaint therefore does not seek relief that is greater than or different from the relief sought on behalf of the alleged class.
The court also concluded that Martinez’s action, if successful, would enforce an important right affecting the public interest and confer a significant benefit on the general public—namely, California’s public policy goals of protecting its private citizens’ property and privacy rights, as well as the rights of celebrities and well-known corporations. Martinez’s lawsuit seeks to enforce the important right to control one’s name and likeness in California, and therefore, if Martinez is successful, she will confer a significant benefit on thousands of Californians.
Finally, the court found that Martinez satisfied the third condition, because private enforcement is both necessary and disproportionately burdensome. Noting that if no public entity has sought to enforce the right that a plaintiff seeks to vindicate in the lawsuit, this fact alone is a sufficient basis to conclude the action is necessary within the meaning of the public interest exemption, and the court explained that there is no indication in the record or the briefing that a public entity has brought a similar action against ZoomInfo. A case is disproportionately burdensome if the cost of the plaintiff’s legal victory transcends her personal interest. Here, Martinez is a noncelebrity who may struggle to demonstrate the economic value of her name and likeness and is likely to recover the statutory minimum for damages (i.e., $750), which would not even cover the cost of litigating the action. On the other hand, if the class action was successful, Martinez’s personal recovery would be dwarfed by the total recovery for the putative class, which is alleged to be in the millions. Thus, private enforcement of these rights is both necessary and disproportionately burdensome. Because Martinez’s complaint satisfied the three criteria to meet the public interest exemption, her complaint is not subject to the anti-SLAPP statute. Because this exemption applies, the court found it unnecessary to determine whether the commercial speech exemption applied or to reach the merits of the claims.
Prepared by David Grossman and Jennifer Kahn