Signature Gathering Operations Dealt Blow in California Appellate Anti-SLAPP Decision

November 20, 2017 | 

Signature gathering operations in California were dealt a setback in a decision from the California Court of Appeals, 4th District in Riverside.

The October 24 decision that was released last week determined that signature gathering, most often for voter initiatives, can be barred in certain situations. The opinion in Ralphs Grocery Store v. Victory Consultants In., D070804, was distinguished from the California Supreme Court's 1980 landmark Pruneyard decision.  

The suit stemmed from a case in San Diego Superior Court where Ralphs filed suit against Victory who was gathering signatures outside two of their San Deigo County stores. Victor filed a so-called anti-SLAPP lawsuit contending signature gathering activities was a protected activity.

In the San Diego case, Judge Joan M. Lewis ruled in favor of Victory saying their arguments met the two-prong requirement in such suits - gathering signatures is a protected activity, and there was a probability of the success of their case.

In the appellate decision reversing Lewis' ruling, Acting Presiding Justice Richard F. Huffman said that the trespass activities cited by Ralphs was not protected activities as claimed by Victory. 

In his opinion, Huffman wrote "Although Respondents [Victory] argue that Appellants are suing them based upon petitioning activity, which would typically be protected, such activity is occurring on private property. Respondents have provided no persuasive argument that their activity occurring on such private property is protected."    

Huffman acknowledged the landmark Robins v. Pruneyard Shopping Center in his opinion but noted the differences in the two cases. In the Pruneyard case, the California Supreme Court said even though shopping malls are privately owned entities, by their nature they act as public gathering places.

Conversely a stand-alone grocery story, Huffman reasoned, stands "in contrast to the multipurpose shopping centers like the one discussed in Pruneyard." 

Expanding on his opinion, Huffman noted complaints by the Ralphs that the signature gathering operation were disruptive to business operations and was operating on private property. That claim, Huffman wrote was based Victory "setting up tables directly in front of the stores or private sidewalk areas; impeding fire lanes; obstructing customers’ ingress and egress into the stores; standing in the way of fire lanes; following or chasing customers and scaring them; and harassing customers."

Based on this Huffman concluded that Victory's claim that they were involved in a protected activity and thus failed the first prong of determining the merit of an Anti-SLAPP claim.

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