Can you sue someone for suing you without violating the First Amendment’s right to petition the government? Yes, in purely private disputes. Imagine you are a former employee and you do something your former employer does not like, as happened to defendants here. Your former employer (plaintiff) sues you. You then want to sue your former employer for suing you claiming abuse of process or tortious interference. Your former employer defends by claiming that its right to sue (petition using the courts) is protected by the First Amendment. Your former employer would be wrong in Colorado. The Court held that First Amendment protections from suits related to matters of public interest (as provided in the POME case) do not extend to purely private disputes. The Court came to the same conclusion in the arbitration context in General Steel, which it extended to this case.
UPDATE: On January 31, 2013, the court of appeals modified its original opinion to include an entire section addressing a motion for rehearing by the Defendants. Defendant employees asserted the court should rehear the case. They argued that on remand they should not be subject to meeting a heightened standard of proof for sham litigation claims (arising from First Amendment protections for litigation activity) for their claims. They based the petition in part on the Supreme Court’s subsequent decision in General Steel Domestic Sales v. Bacheller, 2012CO68 (Nov. 27, 2012). The court denied rehearing and declined to withdraw the original opinion, holding that General Steel did not decide the issue of whether the heightened standard applied to private party disputes brought through a judicial proceeding.
REVISED OPINION: http://www.courts.state.co.us/Courts/Court_Of_Appeals/Opinion/2012/11CA1829%20modified-PD.pdf
“Sham litigation.” A cynic would call that phrase redundant. However, the First Amendment protects the rights of individuals to have their claims decided in civil courts, unless they are devoid of a reasonable factual basis; such claims are an abuse of process. In this case, Employer sues former Employees who allegedly started a competing business. Employees counterclaim stating the Employer’s case is an abuse of process. A jury dismisses all claims and finds in favor of defendant Employees on the counterclaim. Employer argues that because their claims went to the jury, they could not have been devoid of a reasonable factual basis, so the counterclaim should have been dismissed. The court of appeals held that the trial court erred by allowing the jury to decide the counterclaim, and remanded for the trial court to determine if Employer’s claims had a reasonable factual basis.
The First Amendment does not protect purely private arbitration from abuse of process claims when arbitration is not an activity involving the government. In this case, a former Employee wins a binding arbitration against an Employer who brought a claim for violation of an employment contract. Employee sued for abuse of process, malicious prosecution, and civil conspiracy. The trial court did not instruct the jury on the heightened burden on plaintiffs to show that the arbitration lacked a reasonable factual basis on all three claims. The jury found for the Employee and the court awarded treble exemplary damages. The Supreme Court upheld both the decision not to apply the heightened standards to purely private arbitration and its discretionary decision to treble exemplary damages based on in-house counsels’ willful and wanton abuse of litigation and discovery procedures.