Many residents of Southern California live in planned developments which are governed by a homeowner association.  As with most entities, a homeowner association is managed by a board of directors made of up individuals residing within the homeowner association.  It is not uncommon for property owners living within a homeowner’s Association to have disagreements regarding activities engaged in by neighbors.  Some proactive individuals seek election onto a homeowner association board of directors to enable them to have a level of control over activities occurring within the homeowner association.  As such, it is common for disagreements and disputes to arise between competing candidates for positions on the board of directors of a homeowner association.  The question addressed here and recently addressed by a decision from the California Court of Appeal is whether statements made during those heated exchanges can give rise to a claim of defamation or whether the statements are privileged communications, thereby providing a complete defense to a claim of defamation.

In the recent decision of Cabrera v. Alam (Jul. 27, 2011) No. G044023, 2011 DJDAR 11265, the Court of Appeal addressed the issue as to whether statements made at a homeowner association annual meeting immediately before the election of the association’s board of directors could support a claim for defamation. The plaintiff, Cabrera, was a previous president of the homeowner association.  At the association’s annual meeting and election of the Board of Directors, during the course of a campaign speech for his reelection to the board of directors, Alam made various statements about Cabrera.  In particular, Alam accused Cabrera of defrauding and stealing money from the association.  Cabrera sued Alam for defamation based on the statements he made.

In defense of the action, Alam filed an Anti-SLAPP (Anti Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) motion to strike the claim for defamation under California Code of Civil Procedure section 425.16.  The trial court denied the motion, finding that Alam had failed to show that the defamatory statements made by him arose out of protected activity.

The Court of Appeal reversed the denial of the Anti-SLAPP motion, finding that Alam’s statements were protected activity because the statements were made in a public forum at a homeowner association’s annual meeting and concerned the qualifications of candidates, which is an issue of public interest.  The Court of Appeal also determined that Cabrera failed to show a probability of prevailing on her defamation claim because she failed to prove that Alam made the statements  with actual malace by knowing of their falsity or with reckless disregard as to their falsity.  Thus, the Court of Appeal determined that the trial court should have granted Alam’s Anti-SLAPP motion.

The court’s holding in Cabrera demonstrates that courts are inclined to protect statements made in conjunction with public meetings.  Any potential claims for defamation should be scrutinized by a First Amendment attorney in California to consider whether or not the statements were made in a public forum and for a public interest.  In Cabrera, the court determined that statements made about a candidate at a homeowner association meeting are sufficiently public to provide a privilege for such statements.

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