Long-time readers may recall that, together with Ron Coleman, I'm pro bono counsel to Patrick Frey, who blogs as Patterico.
Patrick was targeted with a thoroughly vexatious lawsuit attacking his blogging. Ron and I won the case in the trial court, securing the dismissal of plaintiff Nadia Naffe's federal and state claims.
Today the Ninth Circuit upheld the result in part and reversed it in part. The opinion is here.
You may recall that the trial court dismissed the entire case based on two points. First, the court agreed with us that Ms. Naffe did not state any facts showing that Mr. Frey blogged in his official capacity as a Deputy District Attorney, and therefore her Title 28 U.S.C. section 1983 claim for civil rights violations "under color of law" could not survive, because Section 1983 only applies to state actors. Second, the trial court — on its own — questioned whether Ms. Naffe could prove the $75,000 in damages necessary for diversity jurisdiction2, and eventually found that she had failed to make a showing of sufficient damages.
The Ninth Circuit agreed on the first part and disagreed on the second.
In a published decision that will be significant for public employees who blog, the Ninth Circuit agreed that Mr. Frey didn't blog as a "state actor" for purposes of Section 1983 just because he's a county employee. The Court agreed that Naffe had not stated any facts giving rise to a reasonable inference that Patrick was blogging as part of his official responsibilities. "Frey is a county prosecutor whose official responsibilities do not include publicly commenting about conservative politics and current events." The Court also rejected Naffe's argument that Patrick's blogging was related to his work as a county prosecutor because he discussed criminal law issues. Finally, the Court noted that Patrick frequently reminded readers that he blogged and Tweeted in his private capacity, not his official capacity.
Crucially, the Ninth Circuit confirmed that a state employee can talk about the nature of their work without transforming their speech into state action. That's key for the free speech rights of all public employees. The Court noted "if we were to consider every comment by a state employee to be state action, the constitutional rights of public officers to speak their minds as private citizens would be substantially chilled to the detriment of the 'marketplace of ideas.'" That's what we argued on appeal, and Eugene Volokh ably argued in his amicus brief on behalf of the Digital Media Law Project: Naffe's proposed interpretation of the law would mean that a teacher couldn't blog about teaching, or a police officer about police work, without transforming their writing into official "state action" subject to civil rights lawsuits. That portion of the Ninth Circuit's opinion will be useful whenever a state employee is sued under the theory that their private speech should be treated as official action.
However, the Ninth Circuit reversed the trial court's dismissal of the state claims. At issue was the standard the trial court applied. Having questioned whether Ms. Naffe could prove $75,000 in damages, as required for diversity jurisdiction, the trial court found that she had not proven such damages by a preponderance of the evidence. The Ninth Circuit found that was the wrong standard. Instead, it found, a trial court should only dismiss a case for lack of diversity jurisdiction when it appears to a "legal certainty" that the plaintiff cannot recover at least $75,000. That's an extremely low standard for Naffe to satisfy, and the court found she satisfied it.
So: the case goes back to the trial court. When it does, we'll have the opportunity to ask the trial court to address our motions that were mooted by its prior ruling. Specifically, we filed an anti-SLAPP motion attacking Ms. Naffe's claims as meritless attempts to chill speech, and a motion under California Code of Civil Procedure section 1030 seeking to compel her to post a bond to cover the costs of the case. We're confident those motions are correct and look forward to pursuing them.
Meanwhile, as before, it remains a privilege to work with Ron Coleman and to defend Patrick Frey's free speech. Thanks to Eugene Volokh, whose excellent brief on the free speech implications was instrumental.