Back in October I described how attorney and blogger Cathy Gellis won a significant pro bono victory, quashing Oliver Gobat's subpoena to unmask the blogger behind the St. Lucia Free Press. Gobat, who was suing over blog posts from and about St. Lucia, sued in the United Kingdom, which is to defamation plaintiffs what Walt Disney World is to sticky and demanding children: a fantasy tourism destination. Cathy convinced a California court to quash a subpoena issued here based on the U.K. proceeding; that subpoena to the St. Lucia Free Press's California-based ISP sought the identity of the anonymous blogger. The court quashed the subpoena on the grounds, among others, that the United Kingdom proceedings that generated the subpoena were insufficient and did not comply with domestic free speech or due process requirements. The court even granted Cathy very modest fees and costs — though surely nothing compared to the hours she devoted to the important issues at hand.
But Mr. Gobat and his U.S. attorneys are persistent. They engaged in some rather desultory additional proceedings in the United Kingdom and re-issued the subpoena. Cathy Gellis filed a motion to suppress the subpoena again, and the result is nothing less than an utter rout of Gobat and his attorneys. The California court quashed the subpoena, issued an injunction forbidding Gobat from trying to subpoena the ISP again, and awarded $15,000 in attorney fees to Cathy Gellis, owed jointly by Gobat and his California lawyers.
But why did the court quash the subpoena originating in the U.K.? The court followed California law requiring defamation plaintiffs to make a "prima facie showing" of defamation in order to pierce a defendant's anonymity through discovery. That's not a particularly robust test — unlike the more protective Dendrite test favored in some jurisdictions, it only requires the plaintiff to offer some evidence which, if accepted, would satisfy the elements of defamation. Here, the court found that the statements Gobat complained of appeared to be opinion and hyperbole under American law, not actionable false statements of fact, and that American law controlled in evaluating whether a British subpoena could pierce anonymity in America. In his recommendation to the court, the Judge Pro Tem said this:
Applying the balancing test endorsed by Krinsky v. DOE 6 (2008) 159 Cal.App.4th 1154, 1165, and considering whether a prima facie case of defamation has been stated, the Court finds that the anonymous comments complained of appear to be opinion mixed with sarcasm and hyperbole, rather than objective statements of fact. See discussion in Krinsky v. DOE 6 (2008) 159 Cal.App.4th 1154 at 1175-1178. The Court rules that the 1st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution trumps English law in deciding whether a prima facie case for defamation has been made. Krinsky at 1173, citing Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc. (1974) 418 U.S. 323, 347 [states may define their own law of liability for defamation, but must remain within Constitutional limits].
In his recommendation to the court, the Judge Pro Tem highlighted why it would be perilous for American courts to pierce the anonymity of speakers just because a foreign court decided that their speech was defamatory:
My view is that the language in this case is not that far removed from that in the leading case of Krinsky — it is aggressively critical, but so over the top that the typical reader, reading in context, would recognize it as a rant—an opinion, possibly from a disgruntled consumer of the real estate, or simply from a gadly.
Under Krinsky, another issue is whether English law should be applied to determine if there is a prima facie case of defamation. Krinsky involved Florida law, so we may be dealing with a case of first impression in California. The cases cited above say “no” if English law has a looser definition of defamation than the U.S. Constitution. I posed a hypothetical to Gobat counsel: if a foreign country had a law stating that any woman who criticizes a man is liable for defamation, would a U.S. court use that law in deciding if there was a prima facie case of defamation for purposes of ruling on a subpoena just like the one in this case?
It's fairly unusual, by the way, for a court to make an attorney fee order jointly and severally payable by a party and the party's lawyer. Why would the court do that here? It might be because the second subpoena still suffered so clearly from the defects of the first. Or perhaps it was because Gobat's counsel implied, in a footnote, that Cathy Gellis might have to start legal proceedings in the U.K. to collect on the modest fees awarded in the prior motion:
Petitioner's apparent suggestion that Gobat's California counsel should be sanctioned so that Petitioner need not "chase down [Gobat] all over the world to recover fees and costs" (Pet.'s Mot. to Quash 9), is an improper one. There is no legal basis for levying expenses against a party's counsel as a proxy for levying those expenses against the party himself. Petitioner cites no statute or case law allowing such a practice. Additionally, Petitioner fails to show how he or she would need to "chase down" Gobat. In the event that Petitioner needs to collect a judgment from Gobat, he or she could easily do so by instituting an appropriate action in the U.K.
That was a tactical error. The right answer was "there is no need to sanction counsel because the party, which is taking advantage of this court's processes, will comply with its orders and pay what it is ordered to pay." This line was a red flag to the judge.
This is a tremendous victory for Cathy, and an important recognition of the state of the law protecting anonymity in California courts. Join me in congratulating her.