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Salazar v. Public Trust Institute.

2022 COA 109. No. 21CA0601. Statute of Limitations—Limitations for Persons Under Disability—Tolling.

September 15, 2022

Salazar is a former state representative, former candidate for Colorado attorney general, and former executive director of an environmental protection nonprofit organization. Staiert is a former deputy secretary of state for Colorado and former executive director of PTI, a nonprofit organization “founded to promote open and accountable government.” While serving as PTI’s executive director, Staiert filed two administrative complaints—one with the Office of the Colorado Secretary of State (SOS) and one with the Colorado Independent Ethics Commission (IEC)—alleging that Salazar had violated lobbying laws and regulations. The SOS and the IEC dismissed the complaints. Salazar then filed an action for malicious prosecution against PTI and Staiert. Staiert moved to dismiss under CRCP 12(b)(5) and filed a special motion to dismiss under Colorado’s anti-SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) statute. The district court denied both motions.

On appeal, Staiert argued that the district court erred by denying her special motion to dismiss under the anti-SLAPP statute because a malicious prosecution claim cannot be based on truthful complaints to governmental investigators. A district court’s ruling on a special motion to dismiss is reviewed to determine whether the plaintiff has established a reasonable likelihood of prevailing on the claim. Here, while the factual allegations may have been truthful, there is a reasonable likelihood that Salazar will be able to show that Staiert knew those facts did constitute a violation of law. Therefore, the court did not err.

Staiert also argued that the First Amendment requires dismissal of Salazar’s claim. The First Amendment protects filing a lawsuit challenging governmental activity, so parties filing such a lawsuit are immunized from liability unless the lawsuit is baseless or a sham. Here, Salazar sufficiently established that the administrative claims lacked any cognizable basis in law and demonstrated a reasonable likelihood of proving Staiert had an improper objective in filing the complaints, and Staiert does not appear to contend that Salazar’s legal interests could not have been adversely affected by these complaints. Dismissal is not warranted at this stage because Salazar successfully demonstrated a reasonable likelihood that he will prevail.

Staiert further argued that the district court should have granted the special motion to dismiss as to the SOS proceedings because those proceedings lacked the necessary quasi-judicial character to support a malicious prosecution claim. For an administrative proceeding to qualify as a “prior action” that may give rise to a malicious prosecution claim, it must be quasi-judicial in nature. Here, the Elections Division asked the secretary of state to dismiss Staiert’s complaint during the investigation phase. No formal proceedings were filed and no hearing was initiated or held. Consequently, the SOS proceedings were not quasi-judicial in nature and thus cannot support a claim for malicious prosecution. Because Salazar cannot establish the prior action element of his malicious prosecution claim as it relates to the SOS proceedings, he has not shown a reasonable likelihood of success on that aspect. Accordingly, the district erred by denying Staiert’s special motion to dismiss with respect to this portion of Salazar’s claim.

The order was affirmed in part and reversed in part. The case was remanded for further proceedings on Salazar’s claim arising out of the IEC complaint.

Official Colorado Court of Appeals proceedings can be found at the Colorado Court of Appeals website.

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