SLAPPs Against Organizations Fighting to Improve and Protect Their Communities
SLAPPs Against Communities
- In 2001 in Washington State, a number of citizen groups and individuals opposed the land developer Right-Price’s proposal to build several new houses in a historic area. In response to the opposition, Right-Price sued several associations and individuals, seeking damages for slander, commercial disparagement, tortious interference, and civil conspiracy. In the course of the litigation, Right-Price engaged in wide-reaching discovery, demanding the groups’ records of correspondence with their members, bank statements, membership lists, minutes of meetings and correspondence to public officials, elected officials, or decision makers. The defendants refused the discovery request, claiming a First Amendment privilege, so Right-Price moved to compel production, which the trial court granted. The citizens groups brought an appeal of the production order and the summary judgment motion they had brought. Agreeing with an ACLU amicus brief, the court of appeals reversed the motion to compel, but held it did not have jurisdiction to review the denial of the summary judgment motion. On appeal to the Washington Supreme Court, the Court affirmed the appeals’ court reversal of the production order, and held that the court should have reached the summary judgment issue. Holding that Price-Right had failed to establish a case of defamation, the court dismissed the lawsuit and remanded for the trial court to award fees under the state’s anti-SLAPP law. Right-Price Recreation, LLC v. Connells Prairie Cmty. Council, 146 Wn.2d 370 (2002).
- In 2001, the members of Southeast Citizens for Smart Development (SCSD) peacefully protested the proposed development of a home for troubled teens called Boys Town in its community. The builders sued the District of Columbia for violations of the Fair Housing Act, but they named as defendants of the suit the SCSD and two of its members. The Center for Individual Rights and the local chapter of the ACLU stepped in to defend the community organizers. The judge dismissed the suit as against the organizers, holding that the citizens had a First Amendment right to petitioning and speech, and that the SCSD’s activities, including lobbying local officials and circulating petitions, constituted such petitioning and speech. See Father Flanagan’s Boys Home v. D.C. Gov’t, 2003 U.S. App. LEXIS 7363 (April 17, 2003).
- In 1992, Entertainment Partners Group, Inc. (EPG) sought a permit to develop a restaurant and nightclub in New York. The local block association opposed the application before the Board of Standards and Appeals (BSA), but the BSA granted the permit. The block association, represented by attorney Lawrence Bernfeld, brought an appeal. The BSA modified the permit by limiting the size of the allowed dance floor, which ameliorated some of the community’s concerns, and otherwise adhered to its original granting of the permit. Although it retained its permit, the EPG sued the individual leaders of the block association and their attorney. The court, holding that the lawsuit “impermissibly assailed an exercise of the defendants’ constitutional right to petition government for a redress of grievances,” dismissed the suit. The New York anti-SLAPP statute had been passed but not yet enacted, but the court awarded the citizens the costs and attorney’s fees incurred in defending against it under a statute that allowed for damages incurred defending against frivolous claims of personal injury, injury to property or wrongful death. In the Matter of Entertainment Partners Group, Inc. v. Davis, 590 N.Y.S.2d 979 (N.Y. Supreme Court, 1992).
- In 2003, the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition (NWBCCC) and United Committees of University Heights began to work on tenants’ behalf in five buildings in the Bronx neighborhood. The group picketed and posted flyers on the properties, highlighting the substandard conditions in which the tenants were living. In response to the activism, the realty company that owned the buildings filed suit against the community organizers, claiming trespass, libel and wrongful interference with business relationships. The trial court initially granted a temporary restraining order against the neighborhood groups to prevent them from trespass and business interference. The trespass claim was then removed from the case, and the restraining order ended by stipulation. The NWBCCC filed motion to dismiss the landlords’ remaining claims as a SLAPP under the New York anti-SLAPP law. In 2006, the court granted the defendants’ anti-SLAPP motion as to the libel claim. But, although it held that the realty firms had failed to submit any evidence in support, the court did not dismiss the remaining claims of business interference until July of 2008. See New Line Realty Corp. v. United Committees of University Heights, Case. No. 1020/1004 (N.Y. Jul. 24, 2008).