SALT LAKE CITY (CN) - A California woman who claimed a "therapeutic boarding school" starved and abused students may apply her state's anti-SLAPP law to defamation proceedings in Utah, a federal judge ruled.
Diamond Ranch Academy sued Chelsea Filer in 2014, claiming "maliciously and falsely" defamed it on her website, Facebook and elsewhere.
The website drasurvivors.com is devoted to denunciations of the boarding school for "troubled teens," in Hurricane, Utah.
The school claimed Filer defamed it by calling it a "private prison" that abused, starved and strip-searched students, scamming their parents "out of millions of dollars."
In a June 9 ruling on Filer's motion to strike, U.S. District Judge Tena Campbell found that "much of" Filer's speech "likely originated in California" and applied that state's anti-SLAPP statute.
However, Campbell also found that though "California has the most significant relationship to the immunity issue raised by Ms. Filer in her Special Motion to Strike ... Utah's and California's anti-SLAPP statutes materially conflict."
She ordered the parties to brief the issue of whether discovery is needed before they fully brief the merits of Filer's Special Motion to Strike.
After ruling on the school's motion to stay briefing on the motion to strike, Campbell will either set a discovery schedule or set deadlines for filing briefs on whether California anti-SLAPP law bars the school's defamation claims.
A typical "strategic lawsuit against participation" accuses a litigant of using the judicial system to silence or intimidate a critic on a matter of public interest.
"Ms. Filer, apart from one trip at the age of 11, has never been to Utah, so it is safe to say that she did not post anything on her website from the State of Utah," Campbell wrote, in weighing whether to apply Utah or California anti-SLAPP law.
"Filer's California residence, California's strong interest in protecting its citizens' free speech activities, and the court's conclusion that the record, fairly construed, shows that much of the speech likely originated in California, all weigh strongly in favor of applying California's, not Utah's, anti-SLAPP law."The judge said the California law does not conflict with federal rules of civil procedure.
Diamond Ranch's attorneys at Bangerter Sheppard & Frazier of St. George, and Filer, now Chelsea Papciak, did not respond to requests for comment.
In a separate federal lawsuit in December 2014, four teenagers called Diamond Ranch a " private prison " that "sadistically and verbally" beat teens down and forced them to go barefoot in winter.
"At Diamond Ranch Academy, there was no forum for complaint, explanation, appeal, or grievance against the placement, before, during, or after it occurred," they claimed. "The only option available to the hapless youth there confined was to 'fake it in order to make it,' for Diamond Ranch Academy is a lock down, closely guarded private prison, where punishments are harsh for any rule infraction, real or instigated by the Diamond Ranch Academy staff for their amusement."
Filer was not a party to that lawsuit.
In May, the Washington Supreme Court found that state's anti-SLAPP law unconstitutional.
Justice Debra Stephens wrote that Washington's state law "seeks to protect one group of citizen's constitutional rights of expression and petition by cutting off another group's constitutional rights of petition and jury trial."
In Nevada , the Assembly Judiciary Committee is studying a bill that would impose much tighter deadlines to that state's anti-SLAPP law. The bill sailed through the state Senate in April.
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