Learn more about Peltz-Steele v. UMass Faculty Federation at Court Listener (complaint) and the Liberty Justice Center. The case is now on appeal in the First Circuit as no. 22-1466 (PACER paywall). Please direct media inquiries to Kristen Williamson.

Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Court denies Exxon anti-SLAPP relief in Mass. climate claims; European court bemoans Russian SLAPP

AG Maura Healey
The Massachusetts anti-SLAPP statute does not work in defense of Attorney General enforcement actions, the Supreme Judicial Court decided in May in climate change litigation against Exxon Mobil Corp. Europe and the UK, meanwhile, are working out their approaches to anti-SLAPP.

I am in general anti anti-SLAPP, because the statutes are drawn too broadly. I recited my lamentations in April 2021. I support anti-SLAPP in principle when it works the way it was intended, but broadly drawn anti-SLAPP statutes create innumerable headaches and are used to protect Goliath from David as often as the other way around. Exxon's attempted reliance on the law fits the mold.

With the usual American MO, anti-SLAPP statutes try to slap an ill-fitting patchwork fix on a systemic problem, which is transaction costs in civil litigation, declaring the problem solved while in fact it festers, rotting social and political institutions from the inside out. Only when a bridge collapses does everybody momentarily notice, and then we move on.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court narrowly saved the bridge from collapse this time by rejecting Exxon Mobil's invocation of the commonwealth's typically broad anti-SLAPP statute. Exxon is defending itself against Attorney General Maura Healey. The AG accuses Exxon of deceptive statements that concealed what Big Oil knew about the climate risk of fossil fuel extraction, thus, responsibility for climate change. 

State and locality climate change lawsuits against Big Oil are proliferating in the United States and the world right now, as governments try to figure out where they will get the money to bolster infrastructure against rising sea levels and tempestuous weather events. In the context of "super torts," I wrote in November 2020 about the lawsuit against Big Oil by my home state of Rhode Island. By focusing on claims in state law, public plaintiffs such as my childhood hometown of Baltimore have managed to steer their claims into state court, evading the impact of a U.S. Supreme Court inclination to see the claims in federal court, as Big Oil defendants would prefer.

Accordingly, AG Healey is pursuing the commonwealth claim under Massachusetts's expansive unfair and deceptive practices act, chapter 93A. The powerful law affords double and treble damages and attorney fees in cases of willful and knowing violations, and it can be used as a private or public enforcement mechanism.

Exxon attempted to use the commonwealth's anti-SLAPP statute in its defense. The essence of Exxon's public statements about the environmental safety fossil fuels constituted participation in the public marketplace of ideas, Exxon asserts, so the AG's persecution is just the sort of action that anti-SLAPP should head off.

One limitation, thankfully, in the Massachusetts anti-SLAPP law is that it hinges on petition activity, not merely free speech. There is some margin around the word "petition," as the statute draws in public statements "reasonably likely to encourage consideration or review of an issue" by government. But the anti-SLAPP statute cannot be triggered simply because whatever civil wrong the defendant is accused of was accomplished by way of communication.

The AG objected to Exxon's invocation of anti-SLAPP on this distinction, because Big Oil made plenty of problematic statements to the public. I think she's right. But the court did not get that far. Rather, the court held in favor of the AG on her alternative argument, that the anti-SLAPP statute simply does not apply to public enforcement actions by the AG.

There is a questionable logic to Exxon's theory that petitioning must be protected against attack when the attacker is the petition-ee, government. A petitioner might be expected instead to make a First Amendment retaliation claim, if the attack theory holds up. Also, the anti-SLAPP statute, in a second provision, authorizes intervention by the AG on behalf of anti-SLAPP movants. So the legislature knew how to say "attorney general" when it wanted to, and the AG isn't mentioned anywhere else.

More importantly, the Supreme Judicial Court held, defense against a public enforcement action is not consistent with the legislative purpose of the anti-SLAPP statute: "The legislative history makes clear that the motivation for the anti-SLAPP statute was vexatious, private lawsuits, especially ones filed by developers to prevent local opposition to zoning approval." That's the paradigmatic case that gave birth to anti-SLAPP in 1988.

The court observed that its holding accords with one other jurisdiction that has considered the same problem. The Supreme Judicial Court of Maine declined to apply its anti-SLAPP statute in a municipal enforcement action for a zoning violation, despite the would-be movant's assertion of victimization.

Curious, though, that mass-media-Goliath defense against defamation and privacy lawsuits didn't get a mention in the court's main text. In a telling footnote, the court opined:

Although originally drafted with a particular purpose in mind—that is, the prevention of lawsuits used by developers to punish and dissuade those objecting to their projects in the permitting process—the anti-SLAPP statute's broadly drafted provisions, particularly its wide-ranging definition of petitioning activity, have led to a significant expansion of its application.... The ever-increasing complexity of the anti-SLAPP case law has also made resolution of these cases difficult and time consuming.... We recognize that this case law may require further reconsideration and simplification to ensure that the statutory purposes of the anti-SLAPP statute are accomplished and the orderly resolution of these cases is not disrupted.... We also note that other States have defined petitioning activity more narrowly and that bills have been filed in our Legislature to do the same....

I don't want to be an I-told-you-so, but.... 

Europe and the UK might ought take heed.

The UK invited public comment in a consultation in the spring as it ponders anti-SLAPP, and the European Commission is working out legislation now for the European Union.

In a March judgment, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) recognized SLAPPs as a human rights problem. The court held that a regional Russian government had violated free speech rights with a civil defamation action against an online media outlet critical of officials. 

Of course, the Massachusetts and Maine cases should only aggravate the European court's worry, because it was a public authority that was the complainant in Russia. What if AG Healey were on a crusade against news outlets, using the deceptive practices law to persecute newspapers critical of the commonwealth government? (Is that how Exxon sees itself, victimized?) Would anti-SLAPP not be an apt defense?

The problem did not wholly escape the court's notice. The court struggled to distinguish an earlier Massachusetts case, Hanover, in which the applicability of anti-SLAPP in public enforcement simply had not been challenged when a town sued a union in a row over procurement. In a final footnote, the court wrote: "We note that the union in Hanover was not seeking to employ the anti-SLAPP statute to prevent local government enforcement of laws. As the issue was not raised in that case, and is not raised here, we need not decide whether any or all local government enforcement actions are beyond the scope of the anti-SLAPP statute."

So while the court lamented the burgeoning complexity of anti-SLAPP with one breath, it opened the door to more confusion with the next.

Hanover was characterized as an abuse-of-process suit, and therein lies a suggestion, I believe and have written before, of a better way to manage SLAPPs.

The Massachusetts case is Commonwealth v. Exxon Mobil, No. SJC-13211 (Mass. May 24, 2022). Justice Scott Kafker wrote the unanimous opinion. Track the case at the Climate Change Litigation Database.

The ECtHR case is OOO Memo v. Russia, No. 2840/10 (Eur. Ct. Hum. Rts. Mar. 15, 2022).

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