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Shelton v. Pavon

Supreme Court of Louisiana

October 18, 2017

PHILIP SHELTON
v.
NANCY PAVON

         ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE COURT OF APPEAL, FOURTH CIRCUIT, PARISH OF ORLEANS

          GUIDRY, JUSTICE

         We granted the writ application to determine whether the court of appeal erred in reversing the trial court's ruling granting the plaintiff's special motion to strike defendant's reconventional demand for defamation, pursuant to La. Code Civ. Pro. art. 971, the so-called anti-SLAPP statute, where the appellate court found that plaintiff's petition did not involve a "public issue." For the reasons expressed below, we find the court of appeal was correct in reversing the trial court's ruling. We hold that La. Code Civ. Pro. art. 971(F)(1)(a), which states that "[a]ny written or oral statement or writing made before a legislative, executive, or judicial body" is an "[a]ct in furtherance of a person's right of petition or free speech … in connection with a public issue, " must nonetheless satisfy the requirement of La. Code Civ. Pro. art. 971(A)(1), that such statements be made "in connection with a public issue…."

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Philip Shelton, M.D. (hereinafter "Dr. Shelton") married Judith Shelton (hereinafter "Mrs. Shelton") in 2001. During their marriage, the couple each owned a life insurance policy that named the other as the beneficiary. At some point, Mrs. Shelton was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver and Hepatorenal Syndrome (rapid deterioration of kidneys) as a result of alcoholism. In July 2011, Mrs. Shelton was admitted to Ochsner Baptist Medical Center for treatment and was soon discharged to Woldenberg Village, an inpatient assisted living facility. Mrs. Shelton died on December 31, 2011, at the age of 64.

         After Mrs. Shelton's death, Dr. Shelton learned that, in July 2011, she had changed her beneficiary to her personal assistant/paralegal/friend, Nancy Pavon. In November 2013, Dr. Shelton filed a Petition to Nullify Change of Beneficiary. He alleged Mrs. Shelton had lacked the capacity to execute a change of beneficiary form due to her poor health, including dementia, confusion, disorientation, and personality changes. Alternatively, he alleged Mrs. Shelton's signature on the change of beneficiary form was a forgery or had been obtained through undue influence by Ms. Pavon.

         In response, Ms. Pavon filed an answer and reconventional demand alleging Dr. Shelton's petition constituted defamation per se. In response, Dr. Shelton filed a Special Motion to Strike pursuant to La. Code Civ. Pro. art. 971. Ms. Pavon opposed the motion to strike, arguing that it should be dismissed as a matter of law because Dr. Shelton's petition to nullify did not involve a public issue. She also argued that a motion to strike was not the proper mechanism to dismiss her defamation claim.

         After a hearing and taking the matter under advisement, the trial court granted Dr. Shelton's special motion to strike. The trial court reasoned that, under La. Code Civ. Pro. art. 971(A)(1), the moving party must first satisfy the burden of proof that the "cause of action against [the moving party] arise[s] from any act of that person in furtherance of his right of petition or free speech under the United States or Louisiana Constitution in connection with a public issue…." Thus, the trial court noted it must first consider whether Dr. Shelton's action, that is, the petition to nullify change of beneficiary, arises from an act in the exercise of his right of petition or free speech in connection with a public issue. The trial court concluded Dr. Shelton's petition fell into the category of such "acts" as defined in La. Code Civ. Pro. art. 971(F)(1)(a), because it is a "written … statement or writing made before a … judicial proceeding." The trial court then noted that pursuant to Article 971(A)(1) the burden shifted to the non-mover, Ms. Pavon, to show a probability of success on her claim for defamation. The trial court ultimately concluded she could not. The trial court then awarded attorney fees to Dr. Shelton as the prevailing party on the motion, pursuant to La. Code Civ. Pro. art. 971(B).

         Ms. Pavon sought review in the court of appeal, which ultimately reversed the trial court's ruling. The court of appeal observed that the trial court was correct in first determining whether Dr. Shelton's petition to nullify the change of beneficiary constituted an act in furtherance of his right to petition in connection with a public issue. However, the court of appeal disagreed with the trial court's conclusion that Dr. Shelton met his prima facie burden under Article 971. The court of appeal found the language of Article 971(F)(1)(a) was ambiguous because it was susceptible to different meanings. Relying on the Fifth Circuit's decision in Yount v. Handshoe, 14-919 (La.App. 5 Cir. 5/28/15), 171 So.3d 381, writ denied, 15-2302 (La. 2/19/16), 187 So.3d 462, the court of appeal held that, in light of the legislative history, relevant case law, and the statutory language as a whole, La. Code Civ. Pro. art. 971(F)(1)(a) requires the statements made in a judicial proceeding be made in connection with a public issue. Shelton v. Pavon, 16-0758 (La.App. 4 Cir. 2/15/17), 212 So.3d 603. The court of appeal concluded Dr. Shelton's petition was not an exercise of his right of petition in connection with a public issue.

         Dr. Shelton sought writs in this court, asserting the Fourth Circuit's decision was in conflict with rulings from the First, Second, and Third Circuits. He cited, among others, Gibbs v. Elliott, 12-212 (La.App. 1 Cir. 09/13/13), 186 So.3d 667; Jones v. Delta Fuel Co., 48885 (La.App. 2 Cir. 05/28/14), 141 So.3d 352; and Jeansonne v. Roy, 13-741 (La.App. 3 Cir. 03/05/14), 156 So.3d 134, 142, reversed in part, 14-0729 (La. 6/30/14), 147 So.3d 1116), all of which held that pleadings filed into the record of a judicial proceeding fall within the definition of “[a]n act in furtherance of the person's right of petition or free speech” as contemplated by Article 971(F)(1)(a). We granted Dr. Shelton's writ application to resolve a conflict in the circuits. Shelton v. Pavon, 17-0482 (La. 2/15/17), 212 So.3d 603.

         LAW and DISCUSSION

         Resolving this conflict requires us to interpret Article 971, and so we begin with the language of the statute itself. M.J. Farms, Ltd. v. Exxon Mobil Corp., 07- 2371 (La. 07/01/08), 998 So.2d 16, 27). "When a law is clear and unambiguous and its application does not lead to absurd consequences, the law shall be applied as written and no further interpretation may be made in search of the intent of the legislature." La. Civ. Code art. 9. "When the language of the law is susceptible of different meanings, it must be interpreted as having the meaning that best conforms to the purpose of the law." La. Civ. Code art. 10. Generally, words are given their prevailing meaning, but "when the words of a law are ambiguous, their meaning must be sought by examining the context in which they occur and the text of the law as a whole." La. Civ. Code arts. 11 and 12.

Louisiana Code of Civil Procedure Article 971 provides in pertinent part:
A. (1) A cause of action against a person arising from any act of that person in furtherance of the person's right of petition or free speech under the United States or Louisiana Constitution in connection with a public issue shall be subject to a special motion to strike, unless the court determines that the plaintiff has established a probability of success on the claim.
(2) In making its determination, the court shall consider the pleadings and supporting and opposing affidavits stating the facts upon which the liability or defense is based.
(3) If the court determines that the plaintiff has established a probability of success on the claim, that determination shall be admissible in evidence at any later stage of the proceeding.
B. In any action subject to Paragraph A of this Article, a prevailing party on a special motion to strike shall be awarded reasonable attorney fees and costs.
** *
C. All discovery proceedings in the action shall be stayed upon the filing of a notice of motion made pursuant to this Article. The stay of discovery shall remain in effect until notice of entry of the order ruling on the motion. Notwithstanding the provisions of this Paragraph, the court, on noticed motion and for good cause shown, may order that specified discovery be conducted.
** *
F. As used in this Article, the following terms shall have the meanings ascribed to them below, unless the context clearly indicates otherwise:
(1) "Act in furtherance of a person's right of petition or free speech under the United States or Louisiana Constitution in connection with a public issue" includes but is not limited to:
(a) Any written or oral statement or writing made before a legislative, executive, or judicial proceeding, or any other official proceeding authorized by law.
(b) Any written or oral statement or writing made in connection with an issue under consideration or review by a legislative, executive, or judicial body, or any other official body authorized by law.
(c) Any written or oral statement or writing made in a place open to the public or a public forum in connection with an issue of public interest.
(d) Any other conduct in furtherance of the exercise of the constitutional right of petition or the constitutional right of free speech in connection with a public issue or an issue of public interest.

         Our appellate courts interpret this statute as requiring a two-part, burden-shifting analysis, which the trial court had in fact performed. See, e.g., Thomas v. City of Monroe Louisiana, 36, 526 (La.App. 2 Cir. 12/18/02), 833 So.2d 1282; Aymond v. Dupree, 05-1248 (La.App. 3 Cir. 04/12/06), 928 So.2d 721. In cases where right of petition and free speech activities form the basis of the claims, the mover must first establish that the cause of action against him arises from an act by him in the exercise of his right of petition or free speech under the United States or Louisiana Constitution in connection with a public issue. La. Civ. Code Pro. art. 971(A)(1); Yount v. Handshoe, 14-919, pp. 6-7, 171 So.3d at 385-86; Thinkstream, Inc. v. Rubin, 06-1595 p. 9 (La.App. 1 Cir. 09/26/07), 971 So.2d 1092, 1100, writ denied, 07-2113 (La. 1/7/08), 973 So.2d 730. If the mover makes a prima facie showing that his comments were constitutionally protected and in connection with a public issue, the burden shifts to the plaintiff to demonstrate a probability of success on the claim. Id. In cases where more than one claim is alleged in the petition, the courts examine the probability of success of each claim individually. Darden v. Smith, 03-1144 p. 8 (La.App. 3 Cir. 06/30/04), 879 So.2d 390, 397, writ denied, 04-1955 (La 11/15/04), 887 So.2d 480; Melius v. Keiffer, 07-0189 p. 5 (La.App. 4 Cir. 03/12/08), 980 So.2d 167, 172, writ not considered, 08-1039 (La. 8/29/08), 989 So.2d 90. If the plaintiff can demonstrate a probability of success on any of his claims, then the special motion to strike must fail. Darden, supra.

         Dr. Shelton contends the court of appeal's ruling departs from the rules of statutory interpretation, citing La. Civ. Code art. 10, because it does not conform to the purpose of the law. In his view, Article 971(F)(1) sets forth specific examples of what the legislature meant by an Aact in furtherance of a person's right of petition or free speech under the United States or ...


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