Hospital May Sue Union for Trespass

On June 25, 2010, the California Court of Appeal concluded that a hospital is not a public forum required to provide first amendment protections.  In Community Regional Medical Center v. Carpenters Union Local 701, the appellate court upheld the trial court’s decision to allow Community Regional Medical Center (CRMC), an acute care hospital in Fresno, California, to proceed with a trespass claim against the Carpenter’s Union, Local 701. In August 2008, CRMC permitted a hospital lessee to hire a contractor with which Local 701 had a labor dispute. In response, Local 701 set up a large protest banner, handed out leaflets, videotaped certain interactions at CRMC’s main entrance, and refused to leave CRMC’s property. CRMC filed a trespass claim against Local 701 stemming from these activities.

Local 701 brought a special motion to strike the lawsuit under California Code of Civil Procedure section 425.16, a so-called “anti-SLAPP” motion.  The California Legislature enacted section 425.16 to prevent and deter “lawsuits brought primarily to chill the valid exercise of the constitutional rights of freedom of speech and petition for the redress of grievances.”  The appellate court analyzed Local 701’s anti-SLAPP motion using the two-step process for determining whether to grant special motions to strike: (1) whether the defendant made a threshold showing that the challenged cause of action is one arising from protected activity, and (2) whether the plaintiff demonstrated a probability of prevailing on the claim. 

Because CRMC conceded, for purposes of the appeal, that Local 701 engaged in a protected activity, the appellate court did not address this issue.  Rather, the appellate court focused on the merits of CRMC’s underlying trespass claim.  Local 701 argued that CRMC’s trespass claim lacked merit because the free speech rights under the U.S. and California Constitutions protected Local 701’s leafleting and protest activity on the hospital’s property.  The appellate court noted that private property owners’ actions generally are not state actions for purposes of asserting constitutional free speech rights.  In prior cases, however, California courts had interpreted the California Constitution’s free speech clause to protect activity at shopping centers found to be functionally “public forums.” 

To determine if CRMC was also a “public forum” subject to the exercise of constitutionally-protected free speech, the appellate court examined the following: (i) the nature, purpose and primary use of the property; (ii) the extent and nature of the public invitation to use the property; and (iii) the relationship between the ideas a party seeks to present and the purpose of the property’s occupants.  The appellate court found that CRMC’s primary purpose was to provide medical services, and it limited the nature and extent of any public invitation to the hospital property to those receiving medical services and occasional health-related education.  Additionally, the appellate court saw no relationship between Local 701’s protest regarding the construction contractor  and the purpose of the property’s occupants.  Accordingly, the appellate court found the hospital was not a “public forum” and affirmed the superior court’s denial of Local 701’s special motion to strike CRMC’s trespass action. 

This entry was written by Sarah Silvester.

Information contained in this publication is intended for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice or opinion, nor is it a substitute for the professional judgment of an attorney.