Motions to Strike – Not Just For Improper Requests for Punitive Damages and Attorneys’ Fees

These days it seems one most commonly sees motions to strike in the context of improper requests for punitive damages and attorney’s fees.  However, pursuant to the California Civil Code of Procedure (“C.C.P.”), possible applications for motions to strike are significantly broader than these two categories of improper damages. Indeed, when used correctly, a motion to strike can be a valuable tool to trim the fat from pleadings, and thereby possibly eliminating the need to waste time and resources on discovery regarding any improper allegations.

C.C.P. § 436 allows for a motion to strike “any irrelevant, false, or improper matter asserted in any pleading” or portion of a pleading “not drawn of filed in conformity with the laws of this state.” A motion to strike is proper “when a substantive defect is clear from the face of a complaint.” (PH II, Inc. v. Superior Court (1995) 33 Cal.App.4th 1680, 1682-83.)  This can be particularly useful where an entire claim is not defective or improper, but certain specific allegations within the claim are.

For example, take a claim for intentional interference with contractual relations – to properly plead this tort, a plaintiff must plead the following elements: (1) a valid contract between plaintiff and a third party; (2) defendant’s knowledge of this contract; (3) defendant’s intentional acts designed to induce a breach or disruption of the contractual relationship; (4) actual breach or disruption of the contractual relationship; and (5) resulting damage. (Pacific Gas & Electric Co. v. Bear Stearns & Co. (1990) 50 Cal.3d 1118, 1126.) Now let’s say a plaintiff – a tenant that is a supermarket – properly pleads all of the above against its landlord. Plaintiff supermarket alleges it has a contract with its subtenant (say, a bank or a coffee shop), the landlord knew of the contract and induced the subtenant to breach its sublease with plaintiff to take open retail space owned by the landlord in the same shopping center as the supermarket. Plaintiff further alleges that it was damaged by the landlord’s interference in that it has lost the rental income from its subtenant.  But then plaintiff goes on to allege that it has also been damaged because it is losing the revenue it would have received from purchases customers of its subtenants would have made from it.

Arguably, that last allegation is problematic – plaintiff obviously does not have an existing contractual relationship with its subtenant’s future potential customers, and so plaintiff’s allegations trying to recover damages based on the same are improper. But, the landlord cannot file a demurrer as to this claim, because the plaintiff has pleaded all the requisite elements. However, what the landlord can do is move to strike the improper additional allegations.  If successful, this then saves the landlord from having to deal with these allegations during discovery – saving valuable time and resources.

So, the moral of the story is motions to strike are not just for improper requests for punitive damages and attorney’s fees.  Instead, a motion to strike can be used to target and eliminate any irrelevant, false, or improper matter asserted into a pleading.