Case Review: Woman Files Claim for Malicious Lawsuit Brought by Former In-Laws

This is a malicious prosecution action brought by Wife against Husband's parents and their company. During Husband and Wife's divorce, the parents and their company brought a civil action against Husband and Wife for amounts allegedly loaned to the parties during marriage. Husband's parent’s “settled” with Husband by having him sign an acknowledgement that the total amount sought by his parents was a “joint debt” with Wife; he continued to work for his parents and live in one of their houses rent-free during their lawsuit.

The parents dismissed the case without prejudice against Wife after propounding 22 requests for production, 71 requests for admission, and 54 requests to admit the genuineness of documents and deposing Wife, while propounded no discovery whatsoever against Husband and not deposing him. Husband contended in the divorce that he intended to hold Wife liable for half of the debt in favor of his parents as a community liability.

Wife brought a malicious prosecution action alleging “that the parents and Continental initiated the 2016 Lawsuit ‘without probable cause,’ that they ‘acted maliciously’ in filing suit to ‘mis-characterize hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts as loans’ in order to exact ‘vengeance against [Wife] for filing for divorce,’ and that she was ‘damaged’ by the suit. [Wife] sought compensatory as well as punitive damages.” The parents filed an anti-SLAPP motion; the trial court denied the motion, ruling that Wife's lawsuit arose from a “protected activity” but that she had established that her suit had “minimal merit” based on the evidence that the parents lacked probable cause to initiate the suit and that Husband had conspired with his parents to prosecute and then settle it.

On appeal, the Second District affirmed. It held:

“Where, as here, there is a dispute over what facts the previously suing parties knew at the time they brought suit, a trial court faced with an anti-SLAPP motion by those parties must decide whether the malicious prosecution plaintiff has shown that her allegation that those parties lacked probable cause has ‘minimal merit.’ How is this to be done? We hold that a trial court should do so by (1) resolving all factual disputes regarding what the previously suing parties knew by accepting the plaintiff’s evidence as true and (2) through that lens, evaluating whether the prior claim(s) were legally and factually tenable. Applying this holding, we conclude that the plaintiff here has proven that her malicious prosecution claim has minimal merit and that the trial court acted properly in denying the anti-SLAPP motions to dismiss that claim.”

The court's full written opinion can be found here. For questions about your family law case, speak with our firm at (888) 251-9618 in a free consultation.

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