Private Prison Company On The Hook For Legal Fees After Suing Investment Group For Saying It Was Doing Stuff It Was Actually Doing
from the civics-obviously-not-its-strong-suit dept
Private prison company CoreCivic has just learned a civics lesson. [I’ll show myself out.] Possibly a very expensive one.
Last March, it sued [PDF] Candide Group, an investment firm that “directs capital away from an extractive global economy towards investments dedicated to social justice and sustainability.” CoreCivic was one company Candide reps wanted money directed away from, citing its participation in separating parents from children at our nation’s borders. (But really only the Southern border if we’re honest.) Candide also claimed CoreCivic lobbies for harsher sentencing and tougher immigration laws since both of those would naturally provide more business for CoreCivic.
CoreCivic’s libel lawsuit said these two “falsehoods” were spread throughout the web via sites like Forbes and multiple social media platforms. It denied both assertions and said they were stated with a reckless disregard for the truth. Candide responded with an anti-SLAPP motion [PDF], which pointed out that not only could CoreCivic not prove the statements were false but also that it had filed its lawsuit past the one-year statute of limitations.
The motion worked. After some back and forth discussion about the merits of the arguments, the court disposed of CoreCivic’s lawsuit with a very short dismissal [PDF] in November. The order doesn’t say much but it says enough to indicate just how weak CoreCivic’s allegations were.
A multitude of issues have been tendered on defendants’ motion to dismiss and to strike the complaint for defamation. It turns out, however, that CoreCivic, Inc., did, in fact, operate detention facilities for parents separated from their children pursuant to the Border Patrol’s family separation policy. Thus, even though CoreCivic did not operate the detention facilities in which the children themselves were housed, CoreCivic did house the other half of the afflicted families or at least some of them. Therefore, the allegedly defamatory statements were true enough under the First Amendment and under California defamation law. Truth being a defense, the complaint is DISMISSED WITHOUT LEAVE TO AMEND. It is unnecessary to reach the remaining issues tendered. All other motions are DENIED AS MOOT.
Anti-SLAPP laws work. CoreCivic didn’t like being publicly criticized, especially by an entity that could shift investors’ money elsewhere. That these actions may have damaged CoreCivic’s future profitability isn’t really relevant — at least not when its allegations of libel couldn’t be sustained.
Whatever money is now leaking from CoreCivic is going to be (mildly) compounded by its inability to recognize largely truthful statements as protected speech, rather than the defamation it clearly desires them to be. The court says [PDF] Candide is entitled to collect legal fees from CoreCivic — an important facet of any good anti-SLAPP law. Candide’s legal reps are asking for about $165,000 in fees. However, the tail end of the order suggests it won’t be nearly that much.
First, defense counsel’s hourly rate is inflated way beyond the amount charged to the client. The anti-SLAPP attorney’s fee provision protects defendants from shouldering the costs of meritless litigation so fees should be limited to what actually “compensate[s] a defendant for the expense of responding to a SLAPP suit,” and not result in a bonus for attorneys.
Second, defense counsel spent too long on the motion to strike, especially in light of the experience and expertise of the attorneys which should have allowed them to make quicker work of this matter. Especially where hourly fees are high, there is “an expectation that [counsel] will complete tasks efficiently and that its more senior attorneys will limit their involvement to tasks requiring their level of expertise.”
All anti-SLAPP motions are not created equal, but Judge William Alsup says this one is not that much more equal than others.
Other courts have determined a reasonable time expenditure for an anti-SLAPP motion to be between 40 and 75 hours, not 407.9 hours as here.
Whatever fees are eventually settled on, this case highlights the importance of having a strong anti-SLAPP law to work with. Without it, this case could have gone on for several more months and even a clear win for defendants would rarely result in fee shifting. CoreCivic sued because it didn’t like being criticized for doing things it was actually doing. A suit like this is designed to silence critics and deter others from making similar statements. If a defendant bleeds long enough, an eventual victory is ultimately meaningless. The damage has been done and the threat remains.