California's “Civil Extortion” Law

In California, “extortion” (also known as “blackmail”) is defined as obtaining money or property from someone by the wrongful use of force or fear.1 Extortion can be prosecuted as a crime, but can also be the basis for a lawsuit for "civil extortion."

The extortion does not need to have been prosecuted as a crime in order for a victim to sue for damages. However, unlike a criminal prosecution for extortion in California, an action for "civil extortion" can only be brought if the victim actually paid money or other property as a result of the blackmail. 

To sue for civil extortion in California a plaintiff should be able to prove that:

  1. The defendant knew his or her threat was wrongful or had no basis in fact,
  2. The threat was coupled with an express or implied demand for money, property or services; and
  3. The plaintiff actually paid the defendant the money or property or provided the services.

Examples of civil extortion: 

  • A customer threatens to blanket Yelp with negative reviews of a business unless the owner provides him with free services;
  • A woman threatens to go to the police and accuse her ex-husband of domestic violence if he doesn't voluntarily increase his child support payments;
  • An ex-employee of a celebrity threatens to reveal confidential information unless the celebrity “does the right thing”;
  • A hacker threatens to delete all the files on a hospital's computer unless the hospital pays “ransomware;” or
  • Someone threatens to file a baseless lawsuit unless the other party pays to settle his “case.” 

To help you better understand lawsuits for civil extortion, our California personal injury lawyers discuss, below:

1. The definition of “civil extortion" in California

California's criminal definition of extortion applies to civil extortion claims. As set forth in Penal Code 518, "extortion" means:

"[T]the obtaining of property from another, with his consent, or the obtaining of an official act of a public officer, induced by a wrongful use of force or fear, or under color of official right.”

2. What level of “fear” is necessary for extortion?

California Penal Code 519 sets for the level of fear necessary to make out a claim for extortion. That section provides:

"Fear, such as will constitute extortion, may be induced by a threat of any of the following:
  1. To do an unlawful injury to the person or property of the individual threatened or of a third person.
  2. To accuse the individual threatened, or a relative of his or her, or a member of his or her family, of a crime.
  3. To expose, or to impute to him, her, or them a deformity, disgrace, or crime.
  4. To expose a secret affecting him, her, or them.
  5. To report his, her, or their immigration status or suspected immigration status."

3. What if I actually did what the blackmailer alleged?

The issue in a California civil extortion case is not the plaintiff's actions, but the defendant's use of force or fear to obtain money or property.2

Even if a blackmailer's underlying accusation is true, it is not a justification of, or excuse for, extortion.

Example: Lisa works at a restaurant where the servers are required to serve food to customers if it has been accidentally dropped on the floor.
After she is fired, Lisa threatens to report the owner to the health department unless the owner pays her money. Even though the accusation is true, Lisa's actions still constitute extortion.

4. What if the defendant had the legal right to carry out his threatened actions?

People have the right to report wrongdoing to the police, government agencies, their company's human resources department, and so forth.

But, just because you have the right to do something, it doesn't mean you have the right to demand money NOT to do it.

For instance, people have the right to post negative reviews on websites such as Amazon and Yelp (as long as such reviews do not constitute business disparagement or defamation). That right is protected by the First Amendment.

Likewise, people have the right to report a suspected crime, an immigration violation, or a violation of their company's sexual harassment policy.

But when someone makes a threat to do one of these things -- AND demands money not to do it – it is unlawful.3

5. Can't someone ask for a settlement in order to avoid a lawsuit?

Yes, if the intent is to resolve a good-faith dispute without litigation.

But the threat of legal action without the intention of taking it may constitute extortion.

Note that the person making the settlement request does not need to be right that the claim is winnable. But it must be made in good faith.

While there are no specific rules as to what can and cannot be contained in a pre-litigation "demand letter," potential “red flags” include: 

  • Demands for specific amounts of money unrelated to actual economic damages,
  • Threats to go to the media,
  • Language suggesting vindictiveness or a desire to ruin the defendant's reputation, or
  • Threats unrelated to the plaintiff's injuries.4 
Example: Jeff is fired after repeatedly showing up late for his shift. He believes this is wrongful termination because he was not given written warnings as required by company policy.
Jeff sends an email to his former employer threatening to disclose sexual harassment by his boss unless the company settles his wrongful termination claim. Because his threat has nothing to do with his termination, it constitutes attempted extortion. 

6. Can I sue if I didn't pay any money to the blackmailer?

Plaintiffs cannot sue for civil extortion if they did not actually pay any money or property as a result of the extortion. It does not matter how much stress or emotional worry the blackmailer caused.

However, there may another basis for a suit -- such as intentional infliction of emotional distress or a civil rights violation.5

And the person can still be prosecuted for the crime of attempted extortion.

7. Do I have to make a police report first to sue for civil extortion?

No. The cause of action for civil extortion is independent of criminal prosecution for an alleged crime. You are not required to file a police report or win a criminal case in order to sue for the return of your money or property.

Additionally, since the standard of proof in a civil case is lower than in a criminal case, you may still be able to sue even if the defendant was prosecuted criminally but acquitted.

8. Damages for civil extortion in California

Damages for civil extortion can include:

Remember, however --  a California civil extortion lawsuit can only be filed if the plaintiff actually paid the money to the blackmailer.

Absent such out-of-pocket losses the plaintiff cannot sue, no matter how much pain, suffering and emotional distress resulted from the threat.6 

9. Are attorney's fees recoverable in a civil extortion case?

No. Each party must bear its own attorney's fees and costs.

However, many California personal injury lawyers (our own included) get paid only if and when your case settles out of court or you win at trial. 

Injured by civil extortion in California? Call us for help…

If you paid money or property to a blackmailer as the result of extortion in California, we invite you to contact us for a free consultation.

Call us at 855-LAWFIRM or fill out the form on this page to discuss your case in confidence with an experienced California injury lawyer.


Legal references:

  1. California Penal Code 518.
  2. People v. Sanders (1922) 188 Cal. 744; People v. Goldstein (1948) 84 Cal.App.2d 581;  People v. Hesslink (1985) 167 Cal.App.3d 781.
  3. Flatley v. Mauro (2006) 39 Cal. 4th 299 ("The law does not contemplate the use of criminal process as a means of collecting a debt.").
  4. See e.g., Stenehjem v. Sareen (2014) 226 Cal. App. 4th 1405.
  5. For instance, the Ralph Civil Rights Act, California Civil Code Section 51.7, which provides a civil remedy for threats or acts of violence based on participation in labor disputes or because of race, gender or other protected characteristics.
  6. Fuhrman v. California Satellite Systems (1986)179 Cal. App. 3d 408, overruled on other grounds, Silberg v. Anderson (1990), 50 Cal. 3d 205.
  7. California Civil Code 3294. See also Esparza v. Specht (1976) 55 Cal. App. 3d 1.

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