Benton v. BentonAnnotate this Case
Plaintiff Alphonso Benton (Benton) and defendant Cynthia Moreno Benton (Moreno-Benton) were married and shared a Chino Hills dental practice through late 2014, when they divorced. Benton continued to work at that practice, plaintiff Compcare Medical, Inc. Moreno-Benton, however, opened a separate practice by forming defendant Moreno Family Medical and Associates, Inc. (Moreno Family) around the time of her departure from Compcare. Defendant Kristi Diehl was a physician’s assistant at Compcare who left with Moreno-Benton for the rival practice. Benton and Compcare alleged that defendants Moreno-Benton, Diehl, and Moreno Family misappropriated trade secrets, intentionally interfered with the plaintiffs’ prospective economic advantage, defamed plaintiffs, and engaged in unfair competition. Plaintiffs also alleged Moreno-Benton violated the fiduciary duties she owed to Compcare, and that Diehl violated the duty of loyalty she owed to that company. Defendants responded to the operative complaint with a motion to strike pursuant to Code of Civil Procedure section 425.16, the anti-SLAPP statute, because it was designed to address so-called strategic lawsuits against public participation. The motion alleged that plaintiffs’ lawsuit arises out of two types of activity protected by the anti-SLAPP statute: (1) notices to patients and others that Moreno-Benton was leaving Compcare to start a new practice, as well as advertising Moreno-Benton’s services; and (2) the filing of the petition for the divorce of Moreno-Benton and Benton. Plaintiffs opposed the motion, arguing that the causes of action did not arise from protected activity, and that they could in any event demonstrate that their lawsuit had a probability of success on the merits. The trial court denied the defendants’ anti-SLAPP motion for two reasons, one of which was that the commercial speech exemption found in Code of Civil Procedure section 425.17 applied to the conduct underlying the operative complaint. Although most trial court orders resolving an anti-SLAPP motion were subject to interlocutory appeal, the Court of Appeal found the California Legislature precluded interlocutory appellate jurisdiction over an appeal from an order denying an anti-SLAPP motion on the ground that the commercial speech exemption applied. The Court therefore dismissed this appeal.