This post originally appeared on Techdirt on 3/23/18.
Last week the Tenth Circuit refused to let New Mexico’s anti-SLAPP statute be used in federal court in diversity cases. The relatively good news about the decision is that it is premised heavily on the specific language of New Mexico’s statute and may not be easily extensible to other states’ anti-SLAPP laws. This focus on the specific language is also why, as the decision acknowledges, it is inconsistent with holdings in other circuits, such as the Ninth. But the bad news is that the decision still takes the teeth out of New Mexico’s statute and will invite those who would abuse judicial process in order to chill speech to bring actions that can get into the New Mexico federal courts.
In this case, there had been litigation pending in New Mexico state court. That litigation was then removed to federal court on the basis of “diversity jurisdiction.” Diversity jurisdiction arises when the parties in the litigation are from separate states and the amount in controversy is more than $75,000 and the issue in dispute is solely a question of state law. Federal courts ordinarily can’t hear cases that only involve state law, but because of the concern that it could be unfair for an out-of-state litigant to have to be heard in a foreign state court, diversity jurisdiction can allow a case that would have been heard in state court to be heard by the federal one for the area instead.
At the same time, we don’t want it to be unfair for the other party to now have to litigate in federal court if being there means it would lose some of the protection of local state law. We also don’t want litigants to be too eager to get into federal court if being there could confer an advantage they would not have had if the case were instead being heard in state court. These two policy goals underpin what is commonly known as the “Erie doctrine,” named after a 1938 US Supreme Court case that is still followed today.
The Erie doctrine is why a case removed to federal court will still use state law to decide the matter. But sometimes it’s hard to figure out how much state law needs to be used. Federal courts have their own procedural rules, for instance, and so they are not likely to use procedural state rules to govern their proceedings. They only will use substantive state law. But it turns out that figuring out which a law is, procedural or substantive, is anything but straightforward, and that is the question at the heart of this Tenth Circuit case: was New Mexico’s anti-SLAPP law procedural, in which case the federal court did not have to follow it, or substantive, in which case it did? And unfortunately in this case, Los Lobos Renewable Power LLP v. Americulture, Inc., the Tenth Circuit decided it was “hardly a challenging endeavor” to decide that it was only procedural.
It based a significant portion of its decision on language unique to the New Mexico statute that differed from other states’ and emphasized its procedural operation:
Unlike many other states’ anti-SLAPP statutes that shift substantive burdens of proof or alter substantive standards, or both, under no circumstance will the New Mexico anti-SLAPP statute have any bearing on the suit’s merits determination. See, e.g., Makaeff v. Trump Univ., LLC, 715 F.3d 254 (9th Cir. 2013) (addressing a California anti-SLAPP statute that shifted substantive burdens and altered substantive standards).
It also looked to a New Mexico state supreme court decision that had used substantive/procedural language as part of its consideration of a different anti-SLAPP case:
The New Mexico Supreme Court’s recent decision in Cordova v. Cline, 396 P.3d 159 (N.M. 2017), supports our reading of the anti-SLAPP statute to a tee. … The court could not have made itself any clearer: “While the Anti-SLAPP statute provides the procedural protections [the members] require, the Noerr-Pennington doctrine is the mechanism that offers [the members] the substantive First Amendment protections they seek.”
But picking out this language of the Cordova case to base its holding on suggests that the Tenth Circuit seriously misread what the New Mexico Supreme Court case was saying and all the effort it had made in its ruling to ensure that the state anti-SLAPP law would, in fact, have substantive effect in that case:
To curtail SLAPP suits, New Mexico enacted an Anti-SLAPP statute. Section 38-2-9.1. The Legislature enacted the Anti-SLAPP statute with the policy goal of protecting its citizens from lawsuits in retaliation for exercising their right to petition and to participate in quasi-judicial proceedings. Section 38-2-9.2. In order to accomplish this goal, the Legislature created expedited procedures for dismissing actions “seeking money damages against a person for conduct or speech undertaken or made in connection with a public hearing or public meeting in a quasi-judicial proceeding before a tribunal or decision-making body of any political subdivision of the state,” Section 38-2-9.1(A), and allowing for the recovery of costs and attorney fees incurred in pursuing the dismissal, Section 38-2-9.1(B). … We conclude that the Legislature intended to protect all public participation, whether it be in quasi-judicial proceedings or public hearings. The specific protection in the Anti-SLAPP statute for participation in public hearings before tribunals also comports with a national political ethos, that “encourage[s], promote[s], and purport[s] to protect citizens’ testifying, debating, complaining, campaigning, lobbying, litigating, appealing, demonstrating, and otherwise `invoking the law’ on public issues.” George W. Pring & Penelope Canan, “Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation” (“SLAPPS”): An Introduction for Bench, Bar and Bystanders, 12 Bridgeport L. Rev. 937, 945-46 (1992); see also Rowe & Romero, supra, at 221-23 (summarizing a lawsuit filed in state district court against protestors who appealed city approval of Wal-Mart’s development plan to the district court and then the Court of Appeals and describing the lawsuit as a SLAPP because it was intended to discourage the protestors’ public participation in opposing the development).
It’s this language from the New Mexico Supreme Court opinion upholding the anti-SLAPP statute that should have informed the Tenth Circuit’s analysis, not the substantive/procedural language that it used in an entirely different context than in the case before the Tenth Circuit. The bottom line is that with an operative anti-SLAPP law public participation in New Mexico is protected from costly litigation. Without it public participation in New Mexico has no such protection. But the Tenth Circuit’s ruling means that New Mexico speakers only get the benefit of that protection if the people who try to sue them are local to New Mexico. If they instead have the misfortune of being sued by an out-of-state plaintiff able to assert diversity jurisdiction to get the case into federal court, they will suddenly be stripped of it.
The degree to which this deprivation obviously frustrates New Mexico legislative intent to protect speech, and leaves speech vulnerable to chilling abuse of process, shows just how substantive anti-SLAPP law really is, and thus just how out-of-step with the Erie doctrine the Tenth Circuit deeming it merely procedural really is. It’s also inconsistent with another part of the decision where the Tenth Circuit itself seemed to recognize the anti-SLAPP law’s substantive import.
As part of the same decision, the court also had to rule on whether it could even consider this interlocutory appeal of the district court’s denial to enforce the New Mexico anti-SLAPP statute. Due to a missed deadline by the defendant, the court had to engage in a meaningful analysis that included assessing just how pivotal it was for the court to rule on the anti-SLAPP applicability question now, and not after the full case examining the merits of the lawsuit had concluded. And the court found that it was indeed very important:
“[W]ere we to wait for this case to conclude in the court below by ordinary process, the statute’s sole aim would already be lost. Defendants would have already incurred the ordinary time and expense of litigation that the statute potentially grants them a right to avoid. Indeed, we can reverse the rulings of a hi court, but we cannot order away proceedings and legal fees that have already passed into history. Nor can we remand the case with instructions to “do it again, but faster this time.”
This very same finding regarding the law’s effect, a finding that underpinned the Tenth Circuit’s ability to even consider the appeal at all, should also have led it to conclude that the anti-SLAPP law was in fact substantive, and thus applicable in federal court. Instead, however, when it came to considering the question of its applicability the court suddenly forgot about this significance. It based its decision on semantics, rather than substance, and in contravention of what the Erie doctrine at its root requires.