A recent California appellate opinion provides guidance on the interplay between applications for elder abuse restraining orders and special motions to strike (also known as anti-SLAPP motions). The opinion tells trial courts to consider applications for restraining orders, so as to protect seniors, even when anti-SLAPP motions are pending.
We’ve written earlier about the Southern California brawl over Thomas Tedesco and his $40 million fortune, a fight that continues into Thomas’ 97th year. In White v. Davis (2023) ___ Cal.App.5th ___, the Court of Appeal adds to the case law that has become part of his legacy.
A Blended Family in a Long-Running Conflict
The Tedesco family litigation, beginning to rival Jarndyce v. Jarndyce after five trips to the Court of Appeal, pits Thomas’ biological children against his second wife Gloria Tedesco and her children.
In 2014, as Thomas’ mental health declined, daughter Laura White petitioned for appointment of a conservator over his estate, expressing concerns about Gloria’s isolation of Thomas and efforts to have him change his estate plan.
The court granted the conservatorship and the litigation has continued to this day.
By 2020, Laura was serving as co-trustee of Thomas’ trust. She filed applications for elder abuse restraining orders against Gloria and related parties based on their efforts to unduly influence Thomas to change his estate plan for their benefit.
Gloria and related parties counter moved by filing anti-SLAPP motions.
When EARO Meets Anti-SLAPP
As noted in prior posts, California’s anti-SLAPP statute aims to protect speech and petitioning activity from meritless lawsuits. (SLAPP is an acronym for a strategic lawsuit against public participation.)
If a legal claim arises from activity protected by the statute, the defendant can file a motion that packs a punch. To defeat the motion, the plaintiff must show a probability of success on the claim. If the plaintiff fails, the claim is stricken and the plaintiff must pay the defendant’s legal fees.
We occasionally see anti-SLAPP motions in trust and estate cases, mostly commonly as an effort to derail petitions to enforce no contest clauses.
Here, however, the anti-SLAPP motion targeted an application for an elder abuse restraining order (EARO). An EARO protects an elder from ongoing abuse, including improper efforts to procure changes to an elder’s estate plan.
Given that both EAROs and anti-SLAPP motions advance important public policies, how should a trial judge triage them?
In the case at hand, the Riverside County Superior Court judge chose to decide the anti-SLAPP motions before the EARO applications.
Although the judge denied the motions, Gloria and related parties filed appeals that stayed the EARO applications. Hence, Laura’s request for restraining orders languished while the anti-SLAPP ruling went to the Court of Appeal.
In White v. Davis, the appellate court affirmed the denial of the anti-SLAPP motions. The court stated: “While defendants’ various litigation activities are protected petitioning activities under the anti-SLAPP statute, their plans to unduly influence Thomas and change his estate plan are not. [Instead], defendants’ litigation activities merely evidence their nefarious actions to control Thomas through isolation, confusion, and mental suffering designed to overcome his free will.”
Hence, Laura’s EARO applications did not arise out of speech or petitioning activity protected by the anti-SLAPP statute.
Importantly, the appellate court also found that the trial judge had abused its discretion in prioritizing the anti-SLAPP motions over the EARO applications.
The court indicated that an application to protect an elder or dependent adult from financial abuse is so important that it should be heard even if an anti-SLAPP motion is filed. The motion should not be allowed to interfere with a request for a restraining order. Instead, the trial court should use its case management tools to avoid delay in hearing the merits of EARO applications.
White v. Davis prevents weak anti-SLAPP motions from being used to derail applications for restraining orders, thus strengthening the availability of such orders to protect California’s vulnerable adults.