Duane Morris Takeaways: In Killmer, Lane & Newman, LLP v. BKP, Inc., No. 21-SC-930, (Col. Sept. 11, 2023), the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that an attorney’s allegedly defamatory statements about a company’s wage-and-hour practices during a press conference to announce filing a class action against that same company were protected by the litigation privilege. The Supreme Court’s unanimous en banc opinion held that the Colorado Court of Appeals erred in concluding that there was an exception to the applicability of the litigation privilege where the size and contours of the proposed class were easily ascertainable from the employer’s records and undermined the need to identify and alert potential class members through the press. In reversing the appellate panel’s ruling, the Colorado Supreme Court determined that the attorney’s statements were shielded from defamation claims by the litigation privilege since the statements merely repeated wage-and-hour allegations made in the complaint and advanced the goals of the lawsuit. The decision in BKP serves as a reminder to companies of the potential pitfalls of bringing defamation claims against attorneys who disseminate information to the public about a party that they are suing in a class action.
In 2018, two law firms, Killmer, Lane & Newman, LLP and Towards Justice (collectively, along with attorney Mari Newman of Killmer, Lane & Newman, “the Attorneys”), filed a federal class action lawsuit claiming that Ella Bliss Beauty Bar (“Ella Bliss”), an operator of beauty salons in the Denver metropolitan area, failed to properly pay its nail technicians for required custodial work under federal and Colorado state law. Id. at 5.
On the same day the federal lawsuit was filed, one the Attorneys, Mari Newman, held a press conference in which she stated that Ella Bliss nail technicians had to clean the businesses “for no pay whatsoever,” that the salons “only pay [employees] for the hours they feel like paying,” and that Ella Bliss “is simply too cheap to pay its workers the money they deserve.” Id. at 43. The Attorneys collectively also issued a press release that day asserting that “Ella Bliss Beauty Bar forced its service technicians to perform janitorial work without pay, refused to pay overtime, withheld tips, and shorted commissions.” Id. at 44.
Exactly one year later, Ella Bliss’ parent company, BKP, Inc. (“BKP”) filed a defamation lawsuit against the Attorneys in Colorado state court pertaining to five allegedly defamatory statements that the Attorneys made during their 2018 press remarks, including the ones quoted above. Id. at 13. The district court dismissed the defamation suit and found that the Attorneys’ statements were protected by the litigation privilege, which shields from defamation claims statements by an attorney that have “some reference to the subject matter of . . . proposed or pending litigation.” Id. at 22.
When the Plaintiffs appealed the dismissal to a three-judge panel of the Colorado Court of Appeals, the appellate panel partially reversed the district court’s decision and found that some of the statements at issue were not shielded by the litigation privilege. Id. at 49. While the Attorneys argued that the goals of the media statements were to promote their class action and publicize it to potential additional class members, the appellate panel rejected that notion since the Attorneys were set to receive employment records and payroll documents in discovery that could have easily identified the class members without needing to resort to harmful press statements. Id. at 14.
Following the appellate decision, the Colorado Supreme Court granted the petitioner’s writ for certiorari and analyzed on the question of “whether the common law litigation privilege for party-generated publicity in pending class action litigation excludes situations in which the identities of class members are ascertainable through discovery.” Id. at 1.
The Colorado Supreme Court’s Decision
On further appeal, the Colorado Supreme Court reversed the appellate panel’s ruling and determined that the litigation privilege applied to the allegedly defamatory attorney statements at issue. Id. at 49. The Supreme Court reasoned that the statements “merely repeated, summarized, or paraphrased allegations in the class action complaint” and, therefore, “served to notify the public, absent class members, and witnesses about, and therefore furthered the objective of, the litigation.” Id. at 42.
The Supreme Court also held that the appellate panel erred by basing its litigation privilege analysis on whether the identities of class members were easily ascertainable through discovery. Id. at 2. According to the Supreme Court, two reasons led to that conclusion: “(1) ascertainability is generally a requirement in class action litigation, and imposing such a condition would unduly limit the privilege in this kind of case;” and (2) “the eventual identification of class members by way of documents obtained during discovery is not a substitute for reaching absent class members and witnesses in the beginning stages of litigation.” Id.
Implications For Employers
The Colorado Supreme Court’s decision in BKP, Inc. is notable in that it may serve to embolden the inclination of some class action plaintiffs’ attorneys to use strategic communication techniques to air their clients’ claims in the ‘court of public opinion’ in an attempt to gain leverage, as well as using mass communication tools to grow the reach of their lawsuit to more potential class members. While employers understandably may want to fight back against weaponized misinformation by asserting defamation claims, employers should exercise caution and pick their battles when it comes to such claims, given the high potential for variance in judicial outcomes in states where the case law on this issue remains unsettled and the jurisdictional variables also at play. Ultimately, corporate counsel should carefully consider the potential risks of pursuing a defamation claim against an attorney based on statements that a court may find shielded by privilege regardless of their truthfulness.