California court says plaintiff in dust complaint did not demonstrate qualification for anti-SLAPP exemption

By Sandra Lane | Sep 20, 2018

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Legal Newsline) – The California Court of Appeal, Third Appellate District on Sept. 11 reversed a ruling by a lower court that allowed plaintiff Harmun Takhar to avoid the anti-SLAPP motion filed by Feather River Air Quality Management District over dust complaints.

Judge Andrea Lynn Hoch wrote in the ruling that the judgment of the Yuba County Superior Court was reversed.

Hoch said that the appeals court reversed the lower court’s decision because “Takhar has not demonstrated that he qualifies for an exemption to the anti-SLAPP statute. The causes of action alleged in Takhar’s cross-complaint arise from protected petitioning activity, and he has not established a probability of prevailing on the merits of these claims. We shall therefore remand the matter to the trial court with directions to grant the anti-SLAPP motion and dismiss the cross-complaint.”

SLAPP is an acronym for strategic lawsuit against public participation. Anti-SLAPP laws were introduced to provide stronger protection from frivolous lawsuits.

Takhar filed suit against Feather River Air Quality Management District to hopefully stop a complaint Feather River had filed against him over allegations of violations of state and local air pollution laws. In response, Feather River filed an anti-SLAPP motion, which was refused by the trial court, meaning that Takhar could continue with his suit. The next step was for Feather River to file a petition with the appeals court in Sacramento.

“This appeal challenges the trial court’s denial of a special motion to strike pursuant to Code of Civil Procedure, the anti-SLAPP statute directed at a cross-complaint asserting causes of action arising from a civil enforcement action brought by Feather River Air Quality Management District against Harmun Takhar for multiple violations of state and local air pollution laws,” the appellate court's order states.

The basis for this lawsuit arose when Takhar began to convert a tract of land he owned in Yuba County from pasture land into an almond orchard in 2014. According to the ruling, this process involved clearing and grading of the land, which resulted in massive amounts of dust in the air. Neighboring property owners complained to the air quality district. The court's ruling states that 10 complaints were received between June 6 and Aug. 13. 

On Aug. 14, 2014, the district sent a notice of violation to Takhar and the following day, sent a letter seeking settlement and offering to settle for $2,566. 

"Takhar did not take the district up on its settlement offer and instead continued with his clearing activities," the ruling states. 

On Oct. 8, 2015, Takhar finally answered the complaint and filed a cross-complaint against the district. He alleged that he was a taxpayer and was protesting a waste of public funds in the district’s lawsuit against him. As a result, the district filed an anti-SLAPP motion, which was turned down by the trial court.

“The trial court’s order denying the anti-SLAPP motion is reversed and vacated. The trial court is directed to enter a new order granting the motion and dismissing the cross-complaint. Because the People ex rel. Feather River Air Quality Management District should have prevailed on the anti-SLAPP motion, they are entitled to fees and costs incurred both in the trial court and on appeal, to be determined by the trial court,” Hoch wrote.

Judge Elena J. Duarte and Judge William J. Murray Jr. concurred with this ruling.  

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