Anti-SLAPP statute protects hospital’s statements about doctor’s qualifications and competence.
Doctor Suzanne Yang sued a Tenet hospital and members of its medical staff for defamation based on alleged statements they made about her qualifications, competence, and medical ethics. The statements were made both to the public and the medical community. Defendants’ alleged statements denigrated Dr. Yang’s ethics and her standard of care; they also directed other physicians not to refer patients to her. Defendants filed an anti-SLAPP motion arguing that their statements were protected. The trial court denied the motion, ruling that the statements were not covered by the anti-SLAPP statute because they did not arise from the exercise of free speech about a matter of public interest, and that even if they were covered, Dr. Yang established a probability of prevailing on the merits. Defendants appealed.
The Court of Appeal reversed, following the Supreme Court’s recent anti-SLAPP decision in FilmOn.com Inc. v. DoubleVerify, Inc. (2019) 7 Cal.5th 133. First, the court held that defendants’ speech regarding Dr. Yang’s “qualifications, competence, and professional ethics” directly concerned the public issue of physician competency. Second, the court found a “functional relationship” between the statements and the public issue: defendants contributed to the public debate on a doctor’s qualifications by making statements to the public, not just to the medical staff. Finally, the Court of Appeal held that Dr. Yang failed to meet her burden of proving the likely merits of her defamation claim. Dr. Yang’s evidence concerned statements that were made two years before her action was filed, well outside the one-year limitations period. Additionally, her allegations that the comments continued “until the present” were speculation, not admissible evidence that could support her claim.
The bulletin describing the Court of Appeal’s decision was originally prepared for the California Society for Healthcare Attorneys (CSHA) by H. Thomas Watson and Peder K. Batalden, Horvitz & Levy LLP, and is republished with permission.