Note: This page covers information specific to Washington. For general information concerning Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs), see the overview section of this guide.
You can use the Washington Act Limiting Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, found at Wash. Rev. Code § 4.24.525, to counter a SLAPP suit filed against you. The statute allows you to file a special motion to strike any claim against you that is based on your public statements about an issue of public concern. The anti-SLAPP law allows for a stay of all discovery, pending hearings, and motions, with certain exceptions. If a court rules in your favor, it will dismiss the plaintiff's case early in the litigation and award you attorneys' fees, litigation costs, and ten thousand dollars in damages.
Activities Covered By The Washington Anti-SLAPP Statute
To challenge a lawsuit under Washington's anti-SLAPP act, you must show that the claim(s) against you is based on your written or spoken acts "involving public participation and petition". Washington defines statements involving "public participation and petition" in 5 ways:
- (1) Statements made in a "legislative, executive, or judicial proceeding or other governmental proceeding authorized by law,"
- (2) Statements made regarding any issues under consideration by any branch of the government,
- (3) Statements that are reasonably likely to encourage public participation and interest in an issue being considered by the government,
- (4) Statements made "in a place open to the public or a public forum in connection with an issue of public concern," or
- (5) "Any other lawful conduct in furtherance of the exercise of the constitutional right of free speech in connection with an issue of public concern, or in furtherance of the exercise of the constitutional right of petition."
Wash. Rev. Code § 4.24.525 (4)(a-e). As an online publisher, you are most likely to rely on the fourth category above. It applies to written statements in a public forum on an issue of public concern.
Washington courts have not yet explicitly ruled on whether the Internet is a public forum; however, Washington's anti-SLAPP law is explicitly modeled on California's statute, and federal courts in Washington have looked to California law in interpreting Washington's statute. In California, a publicly accessible website is considered a public forum. While California law is not binding on Washington courts, it might be persuasive.
Many different kinds of statements may relate to an issue of public concern. The statute itself does not define "public concern," but courts in Washington have found that the national health care crisis, or internal happenings in a fire department qualify. Here too, California law can be persuasive to Washington courts; see CMLP's page on California's anti-SLAPP statute for more examples of protected, and unprotected, speech.
Washington's law explicitly does not apply to prosecutions brought by the state. Wash. Rev. Code § 4.24.525 (3).
How To Use The Washington Anti-SLAPP Statute
The Washington anti-SLAPP statute gives you the ability to file a motion to strike (i.e., to dismiss) a complaint brought against you for engaging in protected speech or petition activity (discussed above). If you are served with a complaint that you believe to be a SLAPP, you should seek legal assistance immediately. Successfully filing and arguing a motion to strike can be complicated, and you and your lawyer need to move quickly to avoid missing important deadlines. You should file your motion to strike under the anti-SLAPP statute within sixty days of being served with the complaint. (Note that if the plaintiff serves you with an amended complaint, the 60-day deadline will run from service of the amendment.) A court may also allow you to file the motion after sixty days, but there is no guarantee that it will do so. Keep in mind that, although hiring legal help is expensive, you can recover your attorneys' fees if you win your motion.
One of the benefits of the anti-SLAPP statute is that it enables you to get the SLAPP suit dismissed quickly. After receiving your motion to strike, the court must hold a hearing on your motion within thirty days, unless the court's docket is overbooked. Until your motion is decided, all discovery and other hearings will be stayed (unless the plaintiff can show good cause for continuing some discovery).
Washington courts follow a two-step process when deciding a motion to strike under the anti-SLAPP law. First, you (as the party looking to invoke the anti-SLAPP statute) must show by a preponderance of the evidence that the plaintiff's claim is based on your speech protected as involving public participation. (See above.) Once you successfully show that your online writing involves public participation, the burden shifts to the plaintiff for step two. The plaintiff must clearly show “by clear and convincing evidence a probability” of winning the lawsuit; if the plaintiff fails to show this, the court will dismiss the claim.
Whoever loses the motion to strike (either you or the plaintiff) has the right to an immediate appeal.
What Happens If You Win (or Lose) A Motion To Strike
If you win your motion to strike under Washington's anti-SLAPP statute, the court will dismiss the lawsuit (or the parts of the lawsuit found to be SLAPPs). You will also be entitled to receive your attorneys' fees, your court costs, and an automatic statutory damage award of $10,000. The court may also sanction the plaintiff or the plaintiff's attorney.
Normally, nothing happens if you lose your motion to strike (other than the lawsuit continuing against you). However, if the court finds that your motion under the anti-SLAPP law was entirely frivolous or solely intended to delay the lawsuit, the court can award attorneys' fees, court costs, and an automatic statutory damage award of $10,000 to the plaintiff.
If you succeed in fending off a SLAPP lawsuit in Washington, you may be able to bring a claim of malicious prosecution against the original plaintiff. While Washington does not have a special form of process for a "SLAPPback" claim, the elements of a malicious prosecution claim are similar. You should consult an attorney to see whether such a claim may be viable in your case.