Ohio Looks To Slapp Frivolous Lawsuits Silly

JOOTB_FinalState Senators Therese Gavarone and Nathan Manning recently introduced a bill in the Ohio Senate whereby Ohio would adopt the "Uniform Public Expression Protection Act."  The Act is commonly referred to as an "Anti-SLAPP" bill.  Whatever it's called, it is high time to adopt it.

Let's start with some definitions.  The bill is called the "Uniform Public Expression Protection Act" because it is legislation that has been drafted b y the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws.  There are numerous "uniform" laws out there, covering a variety of legal issues.  One benefit of such uniform laws is that a decision from a court of one state may provide guidance on the law that's useful in another state. 

The bill is an "Anti-SLAPP" law because it seeks to limit the use of "Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation."  A "SLAPP" occurs when someone files a lawsuit – regardless of the merits – to bully a speaker on a public issue into shutting up.  Even a frivolous lawsuit can force a speaker to shell out thousands of dollars to defend it.  And the money is only part of the problem, as the lawsuit can be a drain on time and other resources.  Of course, that is exactly why a plaintiff would file the suit. 

So, what does an "Anti-SLAPP" bill do exactly?  It does several things.  First, it allows a defendant named in such a suit to file a motion asking the court to hold an expedited hearing on the case.  Once the defendant makes that request, the court must "stay" the case.  This means that with limited exceptions, there's no discovery in the case while the motion is pending.  In other words, a plaintiff can't send document requests or take depositions.  Within sixty days of the filing of the motion for expedited relief, the court must hold a hearing and determine whether the plaintiff "stated a claim upon which relief may be granted."  This could mean that the plaintiff failed to show that the statement was false, or that it was defamatory. 

If the court finds that the complaint fails to state a claim for relief, the court shall award reasonable attorney fees and costs to the defendant.  But note that this is a two-way street.  If the court finds that the motion for expedited review was frivolous, the court must award the plaintiff's reasonable fees and court costs.  If the court denies the motion for expedited relief, the defendant may immediately appeal that finding, and the stay remains in place pending the appeal.

The benefits of anti-SLAPP legislation are the ability of the victim to get quick relief, recover attorney fees and have the right to immediately appeal an adverse ruling.  All of this should make the bully think twice before filing a meritless lawsuit seeking to stifle a dissenting voice on a matter of public concern.  The downside of the legislation is that . . . well, I can't think of any off the top of my head. 

While two Republicans introduced this bill, it really is one that deserves bipartisan support.  Ideally, the state legislature will agree.   

About The Author

Jack Greiner | Faruki Partner