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.
Showing posts with label abuse of process. Show all posts
Showing posts with label abuse of process. Show all posts

Thursday, September 15, 2022

Land dispute implicates 'second element of second path of second stage' of anti-SLAPP analysis, and we're all supposed to pretend the world's better for it

The Supreme Judicial Court studies its anti-SLAPP framework.
Argonne National Laboratory CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 via Flickr

Anti-SLAPP analysis in Massachusetts has become a Rube Goldberg machine disguising little more than an "I know it when I see it" test—

—so I contend, and I offer a Massachusetts Appeals Court case decided Tuesday as evidence.

I've written many times about anti-SLAPP, including my contention that the device can be used meritoriously, but is as often deployed to contrary ends, a sword for Goliath to strike down David; the legion dysfunctions of tort law that anti-SLAPP amplifies; and the possible better solution to be found in process torts and similar related mechanisms of accountability in law practice and procedure.

As Massachusetts courts have struggled to differentiate meritorious actions from SLAPPs under the Commonwealth's characteristically convoluted statute, I ultimately gave up trying to keep up with the ever more complicated thicket of rules and procedures leaching out from appellate decisions. So The Savory Tort should not be your first stop if you're trying to get a granular grip on the current landscape here.

Yet I can't help but write about this most recent appellate opinion. To my reading, the court poorly disguised its doubts about burgeoning and burdensome anti-SLAPP process, and whether time, money, and justice can all be saved at the same time.

The underlying dispute was a land matter. The plaintiff, seeking quiet title and adverse possession, was partially successful in a somewhat protracted litigation. Later, if before the expiry of a three-year limitations period, the respondent from the land action filed the present case, alleging abuse of process and intentional infliction of emotional distress by way of the earlier case. The land plaintiff from the earlier case, now the process and IIED defendant, raised the Massachusetts anti-SLAPP statute in defense.

First, I take the occurrence here of abuse of process as evidence in support of my position that anti-SLAPP is often really about process wrongs. Though here the anti-SLAPP movant is the one accused of abuse of process, it is typical in process tort cases for accusations of misconduct to fly simultaneously in both directions. Regardless of whether a jurisdiction recognizes abuse of process as a cause of action per se, courts have the power to manage process objections with a range of existing tools. I wrote about abuse of process appearing as a defensive mechanism, essentially a better tailored anti-SLAPP device, in South Africa. And my 1L torts class just yesterday read Lee Tat Development, a well reasoned 2018 opinion, included in my casebook, in which the Singapore Court of Appeals both rejected the abuse of process as a tort action and thoroughly discussed alternatives.

The Massachusetts Appeals court devoted a dense 10 pages to the blow by blow between the parties in the instant case. I won't retell it here. What's compelling is what the court had to say about its job in reviewing the Superior Court's anti-SLAPP ruling. Quoting the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) in the Exxon case, which I reported recently, the Appeals Court's opening line oozes disrelish:

"This case involves yet another example of the 'ever-increasing complexity of the anti-SLAPP case law,' and the 'difficult and time consuming' resolution of special motions to dismiss pursuant to the 'anti-SLAPP' statute."

The partial quotes read like the court is feigning innocent pleading to the Supremes, "These are your words. We're just repeating them."

In analyzing the instant case according to the painstaking legal framework that the SJC has eked out of case experience, the Appeals Court located the present dispute in "the second element of the second path of the second stage."

What is the second element of the second path of the second stage, you ask?

Well, it's that the "judge must 'assess the "totality of the circumstances pertinent to the nonmoving party's asserted primary purpose in bringing its claim," and ... determine whether the nonmoving party's claim constitutes a SLAPP suit.'"

Isn't that the whole game?

I humbly propose that the good ship Commonsense has already sailed when we start talking about a second element of a second path of a second stage.

The Appeals Court divulged a tone somewhere between surprise and pride when it concluded "that the [Superior Court] judge followed the augmented framework sequentially, assiduously, and judiciously." Adjectives "comprehensive" and "thoughtful" followed.

Then, around page 27, the court hints at deeper problems.

The [landowners'] arguments demonstrate some of the difficulties associated with the application of the augmented framework. On one hand, the present action presents as a typical SLAPP case in that a supposedly wealthy developer sued abutters of supposedly modest means for petitioning in court to challenge a development project.... On the other hand, the [landowners] averred that far from being wealthy and powerful developers, they were a real estate broker and part-time bookkeeper attempting to develop a single-family residential property, while the [anti-SLAPP movants] were not the "individual citizens of modest means" contemplated by the anti-SLAPP law. The parties contested each other's motivations and representations. There is an inherent difficulty and, in some cases, prematurity in requiring a judge to make credibility determinations and discern a party's primary motivation predicated on affidavits, pleadings, and proffers, and not on a more complete evidentiary record scrutinized through cross-examination.

Some pages later, the court returned more directly but cautiously to the question of anti-SLAPP efficacy:

In this regard, as we have noted, the [landowners] insist that the present action cries out for a jury trial as the only appropriate way to resolve critical credibility disputes and determine the parties' true motivations. This argument has some force in that there are obvious difficulties in ... requiring judges to be fairly assured that the challenged claim is not a SLAPP suit, absent full discovery and testimony tested through cross-examination. Yet, the special motion to dismiss remedy exists, in large part, to avoid costly litigation and trial.... In any event, it is for the Supreme Judicial Court or the Legislature to address and resolve these concerns should they so choose.

At the tail end of a 34-page appellate opinion on meta-litigation over a small land matter and a lot of bad blood, one might wonder how much "costly litigation" was avoided.

The problem is with anti-SLAPP itself. The court is being asked to adjudge the motives of a litigant in the absence of evidence for the very purpose of avoiding the cost of collecting evidence.

We don't have a SLAPP problem. We have a transaction costs problem. Slapping a bandage on it with anti-SLAPP only invites perverse results. And the harder one tries to get right a call about evidence without the evidence, the more costly and perverse the results will be.

The case is Nyberg v. Wheltle, No. 21-P-791 (Mass. App. Ct. Sept. 13, 2022) (temporary court posting). Judge Eric Neyman wrote the opinion for a unanimous panel.

UPDATE, Sept. 16: Notwithstanding the ill wisdom of anti-SLAPP, the fad flourishes. Europe and the UK continue their headlong advances toward legislation, and a new bill in the U.S. Congress seeks to bring anti-SLAPP to U.S. federal courts. Enjoy, judges! I don't expect that the extinction of the defamation cause of action will do much to remedy our problems with misinformation and vitriolic divisiveness, but that seems to be the experiment we're determined to carry out.

Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Privilege shields attorney from bankruptcy creditor's claim of sham proceeding to hide client's assets

mohamed hassan CC0 via PxHere
The litigation privilege shields an attorney from tort liability in the conduct of a case, the Massachusetts high court held, even if there was fraud.

The question of litigation privilege arose in connection with a bankruptcy. Creditors of a construction company alleged that its bankrupt owner had transferred assets to his wife in a sham adversarial divorce proceeding, and that their lawyer had orchestrated the plan. Besides attaching property of the debtor, the creditors sued the lawyer who had represented the debtor's wife in the divorce while the debtor appeared pro se. 

The litigation privilege protects participants in litigation, including lawyers and witnesses, from liability arising from their participation in the litigation. The privilege is often employed in defense against tort actions such as defamation and interference with contract.

The litigation privilege is better characterized as an absolute privilege, rather than a qualified privilege, though the line between the two is not always bright.  Qualified privileges usually can be vitiated by malice, whether common law "ill will" malice or actual "reckless disregard" malice.

Closer to impregnable, an absolute privilege can be vulnerable on questions of scope, but usually not on grounds of culpability. For example, the Texas Supreme Court in 2021 declined to extend the litigation privilege to protect an attorney against defamation allegations based on extra-judicial statements to media to garner pre-suit publicity for litigation by the Animal Legal Defense Fund against the commercial owner of the Houston Downtown Aquarium. The privilege failed because of the remoteness of pre-suit publicity from the litigation process, not because of the alleged scienter of the attorney.

The Supreme Judicial Court recounted the common law history of the litigation privilege.

The roots of the litigation privilege can be found in English common law, with the first reported decision dismissing an action against an attorney on the ground of the privilege issued in 1606. See Brook v. Montague ... (K.B. 1606); [T. Leigh] Anenson, Absolute Immunity From Civil Liability: Lessons for Litigation Lawyers [Pepp. L. Rev.] (2004).... In that case, an English court held that an attorney accused of slandering his client's adversary during a previous trial—by asserting that the adversary was a convicted felon—was immune from suit.... The court decided that "[a] counsellor in law retained hath a privilege to enforce any thing which is informed him by his client, and to give it in evidence, it being pertinent to the matter in question, and not to examine whether it be true or false."

Courts in the United States adopted this doctrine in the Nineteenth Century and frequently cited the early English cases in doing so. See, e.g., Marsh v. Elsworth ... (N.Y. Super. Ct. 1869) [citing Brook]; Mower v. Watson [Vt. 1839 (citing Buckley v. Wood (K.B. 1591))]. Over time, the scope of the doctrine has broadened. See [Paul T.] Hayden, Reconsidering the Litigator's Absolute Privilege to Defame ... (1993). Nearly every State, including Massachusetts, has adopted the formulation of the privilege set forth in the Restatement (Second) of Torts, [§ 586 (1977),] which provides:

An attorney at law is absolutely privileged to publish defamatory matter concerning another in communications preliminary to a proposed judicial proceeding, or in the institution of, or during the course and as a part of, a judicial proceeding in which he participates as counsel, if it has some relation to the proceeding.

"The privilege applies regardless of malice, bad faith, or any nefarious motives on the part of the lawyer so long as the conduct complained of has some relation to the litigation." Anenson, supra....

The court also recounted the purpose of the privilege, to "promote[] zealous advocacy by allowing attorneys 'complete freedom of expression and candor in communications in their efforts to secure justice for their clients'" (quoting Mass. precedent). The privilege simultaneously enhances judicial efficiency by precluding "meta-litigation" (my word choice) by disgruntled adversaries. (The same argument has been used to reject civil process torts.)

The litigation is not a privilege to commit wrongs, the court cautioned. Lawyers are subject to a court's inherent authority to sanction, by which a court can compel compensation to a wronged party. And lawyers are subject to bar discipline for violating the rules of professional conduct.

In the instant case, then, the complainants were not permitted to predicate an action for fraud based on the defendant-lawyer's in-court representation of the debtor's wife in the divorce proceedings.

A closer question arose as to the defendant's potential liability for conduct outside the courtroom, what the complainants characterized as orchestration of a fraudulent scheme. But the court resisted the effort to articulate a pattern of conduct apart from the litigation or expression in the course of litigation. The court cited and followed the lead of other state high courts, holding "that the litigation privilege shields an attorney from liability for actions taken during the course of litigation." The court cited a Restatement comment articulating a broad basis for the privilege "upon a public policy of securing to attorneys as officers of the court the utmost freedom in their efforts to secure justice for their clients."

"The litigation privilege thus applies to [the attorney's] advice and to the services he rendered," the court concluded.

The creditors are not without remedy, the court noted, evidenced by their efforts in collateral litigation to attach debtor assets notwithstanding the bankruptcy. Moreover, the court reiterated, civil immunity "would not shield the attorney from any applicable sanction for conduct contrary to the rules of professional responsibility, nor would it suggest to other attorneys that such behavior is acceptable."

The case is Bassichis v. Flores (Mass. July 1, 2022). Justice Serge Georges, Jr. wrote the unanimous opinion.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Despite lack of statute, anti-SLAPP blocks mining company suit as abuse of process in South Africa

Coffee Bay is a tourist destination on the Eastern Cape.
(photo by Jon Rawlinson CC BY 2.0)
Two weeks ago, a South African court recognized an anti-SLAPP defense in the absence of a statute, as an abuse of process, in a defamation case brought by mining companies against environmentalists.

In the case, mining companies Mineral Commodities Ltd and a subsidiary, and directors, sued environmentalist lawyers and activists for defamation, seeking R14.25m, close to US$1m, or in the alternative, an apology, for defendants' accusations of ecological and economic damage caused by excavation and mining projects at Tormin Mine on the Western Cape and at Xolobeni on the Eastern Cape.

Defense lawyers argued that the suit was a strategic lawsuit against public participation, or "SLAPP" suit, calculated to silence the defendants for their criticism of the plaintiffs, rather than a bona fide claim of defamation.  South Africa has no anti-SLAPP statute.  But the High Court for the Western Cape held, with reference to the freedom of expression in the South African constitution, that the judicial power to abate vexatious litigation and abuse of civil process may be deployed to dismiss a SLAPP suit.

"[T]he interests of justice should not be compromised due to a lacuna or the lack of legislative framework," the court wrote.

The court examined the history of the SLAPP as a legal strategy and traced its origin to anti-environmentalism in Colorado and recognition in the 1988 scholarship of professors Penelope Canan and George Pring.  The court discussed anti-SLAPP legislation in the United States, Canada, and Australia, including the statutes of Georgia, Washington, and New York, and the recent enhancement of the latter.  Anti-SLAPP has been recognized as meritorious in principle by the Supreme Court of Canada, the High Court observed, though anti-SLAPP is enacted by statute in only three provinces.

The court looked also to Europe, and specifically the "McLibel" lawsuit of the 1990s (1997 documentary) and 20-aughts, in which McDonald's Corp. sued environmentalists in England.  Anti-SLAPP has been debated in the European Union, the court explained, but legislation has not been enacted.  Nevertheless, the court opined, the ultimate disposition of the McLibel case in the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) was consistent with the principle of anti-SLAPP.  In the McLibel case, the English courts ruled in favor of McDonald's, finding some assertions in the environmentalist leaflets to be libelous.  Subsequently, the ECtHR, in 2005, ruled that British law (well before the 2013 UK Defamation Act) had not afforded the defendants sufficient protection for the freedom of speech.  

In the McLibel case, the ECtHR stressed the chilling effect on speech of the extraordinary cost burden on individual activist-defendants in defending a civil suit against a large corporation, especially in the shadow of attorney fee-shifting to the winner, which is the norm in civil litigation in the UK and most of the world.  The High Court pointed to a South African precedent that is similar on that point, Biowatch Trust v. Registrar, Genetic Resources, in the Constitutional Court of South Africa in 2009.

I have written before about Biowatch, which was an access-to-information (ATI, freedom of information, or FOI) case.  In that case, environmentalist NGO Biowatch, under South African environmental protection and access-to-information law, sought information about Monsanto (now Bayer) genetically modified organisms introduced into national agriculture.  The result in the case was mixed, and the trial court awarded the defendant government and intervenor Monsanto their substantial legal fees against Biowatch.  Subsequently, the Constitutional Court held that Biowatch should be exempt from a fee award, because such an award against a public-interest litigant would chill the exercise of constitutional rights, which, in South Africa, include the right to a healthy environment.

The exact contours of a common law anti-SLAPP defense will have to be worked out by South African courts if the High Court precedent sticks.  The instant case was not difficult for the court to map to the SLAPP paradigm:  The tort alleged was defamation.  The conduct of the defendants was expression specifically in furtherance of environmental protection.  The mismatch between plaintiffs and defendants in wealth and power was "glaringly obvious."

The plaintiffs' demand also drew the court's skepticism.  Referencing the findings of Canan and Pring in the 1980s, the court observed: "A common feature of SLAPP suits is ... a demand for an apology as an alternative to the exorbitant monetary claim."

I reiterate my dislike of anti-SLAPP laws.  I also acknowledge that anti-SLAPP measures sometimes are warranted.  South Africa in particular, in recent decades, has seen a rise in the weaponization of defamation and related torts, especially by powerful corporations and politicians, including former President Jacob Zuma.  Americans might note a parallel in former President Donald Trump, who used defamation for leverage in business and called for plaintiff-friendly libel reform.  At the same time, defamation defendant President Trump won a nearly $300,000 award against Stormy Daniels thanks to fee-shifting under the California anti-SLAPP law.

The problem with anti-SLAPP legislation in the United States is that it does not weigh factors that the Western Cape High Court took into account, such as the relative power of the plaintiff and the defendant.  Yes, anti-SLAPP laws in the United States and Canada protect environmentalists against developers.  American anti-SLAPP laws also protect fantastically wealthy and sloppy media conglomerates against individuals whose lives are ruined by mistakes and falsities on the internet, which never forgets.  The threat of fee shifting, characteristic of anti-SLAPP legislation and usually foreign to U.S. civil litigation, is especially terrifying in light of enormous U.S. transaction costs, including the high-dollar rents of American corporate defense firms.  Anti-SLAPP laws are the darling of the professional media defense bar, and, lest the journalist's aphorism be conveniently forgotten, we might ought follow the money.

For that reason, the High Court's "abuse of process" approach is intriguing.  The court's articulation of abuse of process, as applied to Mineral Commodities, while not the sole basis of the court's holding, accords with the American common law test.  The American tort may be expressed as "(1) use of judicial process (civil or criminal), (2) ulterior or improper motive, (3) process used not for its designed or intended purposes, and (4) resulting harm."

Typically, in the American context, abuse of process is exceedingly difficult to prove, because courts are generous in accepting the plaintiff's plea of honest intentions to negate the second element.  Mineral Commodities pleaded its genuineness, but the High Court was willing to doubt, sensibly, looking at the parties and the uncontroverted facts.  Maybe a bit less judicial generosity would allow abuse of process to police SLAPP better than the corporate-friendly statutes that 30 U.S. states have embraced, and for which media corporations are now lobbying Congress.

The opinion in the High Court was delivered by Deputy Judge President of the Western Cape High Court Patricia Goliath.  Her surname was not lost on commentators (below), who played on the "David vs. Goliath" ideal of anti-SLAPP.  Curiously, DJP Goliath, who served on the Constitutional Court in 2018, is embroiled presently in turmoil within the High Court.  In 2019, she alleged she had been pressured by President Zuma for favorable assignments of cases in which he was involved.  Possibly in retaliation for not playing ball, she has been, she has alleged further, subject to gross misconduct and verbal abuse, if not worse, by High Court President John Hlophe.  JP Hlophe denies the allegations.

I am indebted, for spying the case, to attorneys for the defendants, Odette Geldenhuys and Dario Milo, of Webber Wentzel, who wrote about the case for the Sunday Times (South Africa) (subscription required) and for the INFORRM blog.

The case is Mineral Sands Resources Ltd v. Reddell, No. 7595/2017, [2021] ZAWCHC 22 (High Ct. Wn. Cape Feb. 9, 2021) (South Africa).

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Singapore Supreme Court rejects civil process torts

In August, the Singapore Supreme Court refused to adopt the tort of abuse of process and refused to extend the tort of malicious prosecution to the civil context.  The case is Lee Tat Development Pte Ltd v. Management Corp. Strata Title Plan No 301, [2018] SGCA 50 (Aug. 17, 2018) (summary).

Associate Justice Phang (Singapore Supreme Court)
The court opinion, which ranges over more than 100 pages, is a remarkable work of jurisprudence and should not go unnoticed by comparativist students of common law.  The opinion was authored by Associate Justice Andrew Phang Boon Leong.  Justice Phang is a Harvard LL.M./S.J.D. who worked his way up the academic ranks in law, business, and management in Singapore before his appointment to the bench about a dozen years ago.  He has a treatise in contracts among his bona fides.  I owe my awareness of this decision to James Lee, equity scholar and reader in English law at The Dickson Poon School of Law, King's College London.

My purpose here is not to get into the merits or challenges of the torts of abuse of process and malicious civil prosecution.  Suffice to say that if that is your interest, this opinion is mandatory reading.  From the 20,000-foot perspective, I'll say that for many years I did not teach these torts in 1L beyond the bare bones mentioned in my CAP casebook by Prof. Marshall Shapo.  Increasingly I'm feeling like I need to give these torts more bandwidth.  I'm not sure whether it's a function of coarsening society, a natural evolution of common law, or me just paying better attention, but I feel like these "meta-torts"—that is, torts about tort litigation; my term, not to be confused with meta-humans, nor with Birks, et al.'s quasi-tort equitable wrongs—are getting more play today than they used to.  Accordingly, this year I drafted multistate rules to guide students, and at some point, I will add the rules to my American torts primer.

Singapore Supreme Court (Terence Ong, CC BY-SA-2.0)
Instead I want to share three favorite bits of Justice Phang's opinion.  The first thing to notice here for the comparativist is that Singapore is a common law jurisdiction.  I confess, it's not the first nation I think of when reeling off a list of common law countries.  For an academic, it might ought be.  (I have been there, and it is a lovely, unique place.)  Singapore inherited English common law by way of the British East India Co., a distinction in which, of course, it is not unique.  At the same time, Singapore's unusual role as a tiny economic powerhouse, dependent on and defined by its commercial relationships with the world, make its common law a unique and worthy study in internationalism.  Thoughtful and contextualized, Justice Phang's opinion exemplifies this point.  For survey research, the court thanked academic amicus Prof. Gary Chan, a colleague of Phang's from the law school at Singapore Management University.

Of 'quenchless feuds'.  Justice Phang (¶ 1) elegantly characterized the land dispute that underlies Lee Tat:

As the Judge observed [in the High Court], this is yet another legal tussle in a series of bitterly fought litigation between the parties which stretches across more than four decades and which hitherto has resulted, inter alia, in five decisions of this court, excluding the present decision.  In the last of those decisions, this court characterised the protracted quarrel between the parties as a "marathon saga of litigation" [citation omitted].  At this juncture, some seven years and yet another set of proceedings later, it seems appropriate to say, in the words of Herman Melville, that it is a "quenchless feud" (Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (Norton, 1892) at p 169).
That this dispute arose in what appears to be a Singaporean iteration of the Hatfields and the McCoys does bolster the court's conclusion on meta-torts.  If transaction costs are part of the problem in your legal system—we know they're a huge problem in the American system—you might want to think twice about piggyback litigation.  At some point the law of diminishing returns eclipses justice in the dogged search for truth.

Of 'timorous souls' and 'bold spirits'.  In considering the wisdom of extending Singaporean common law, Justice Phang (¶ 11) broke out a Lord Denning gem:

In considering possible recognition of the torts of malicious civil prosecution and abuse of process in Singapore, we bear in mind the oft-quoted observations by Denning LJ (as he then was) in the English Court of Appeal decision of Candler v Crane, Christmas & Co [1951] 2 KB 164, where the learned judge drew (at 178) a distinction between "timorous souls who were fearful of allowing a new cause of action" and "bold spirits who were ready to allow it if justice required".  These observations have, in fact, been quoted more than once by this court itself [citations omitted].  However, there is a limit to judicial law making.

This is a beautiful treatment of the seeming conflict between common law as a law-making device, renowned for its very capacity to grow and adapt to new circumstances, and the fundamental identity of the western judiciary as a creature of only corrective justice in the Aristotelian mold.  Otherwise put, the enterprise of common law often seems at odds with the purportedly non-normative job of the judge.  To set the problem in its popular American baseball metaphor, when is a judge, whose job it is only to call balls and strikes, duty-bound to change the size of the strike zone?  This problem in relation to the nature of the common law enterprises has been a puzzler in the United States at least since Holmes's Common Law and has at times generated nuances of distinction between otherwise like-minded judges in such a way as to vex legal scholars.

William the Conqueror
Of the Norman Conquest.  In examining the policy rationale for malicious (criminal) prosecution to test its applicability in the civil context, Justice Phang (¶ 87) traced the division between criminal and civil law to 1066:

The character of a criminal prosecution, carried out with a view to punishing a public wrong, is fundamentally different from that of a civil prosecution which is carried out with a view to vindicating a private right.  The difference between these two types of proceedings was explained in the following passage from an earlier decision of this court, Public Prosecutor v. UI [2008] 4 SLR(R) 500 at [52]:

... With the reign of William the Conqueror, the [English] criminal justice system, as it then stood, changed drastically.  A distinction was created between liability for private wrongs and liability for public wrongs.  Sir William Blackstone explained clearly the distinction between public wrongs and private wrongs in Commentaries on the Law of England vol 4 (A Strahan, 15th Ed, 1809) as follows (at p5):

[P]rivate wrongs, or civil injuries, are in infringement or [a] privation of the civil rights which belong to individuals, con[s]idered merely as individuals: public wrongs, or crimes and [misdemeanours] are a breach and violation of the public rights and duties, due to the whole community, con[s]idered as a community, in [its social] aggregate capacity.

As a result of the above change in the English criminal justice system, the individual victim was replaced by the State.  The offence was considered to be committed against the State and the liability of the offender was, accordingly, owed first and foremost to the State.  This is the criminal justice system which Singapore has inherited and maintains to this day.... [emphasis added by Justice Phang].

Justice Phang (¶¶ 88-90) derived from this history three salient distinctions between criminal and civil process.  First, criminal charges more than civil claims can impugn a defendant's reputation in the community.  Second, the consequences of criminal conviction are more invasive of the defendant's rights than the consequences of civil liability.  Third, criminal prosecution is an enterprise of public authorities, while civil prosecution is a private pursuit.  In all three respects, then, the need for a remedy to malicious prosecution is greater in the criminal context than in the civil context.

A useful review of abuse of process, malicious (criminal) prosecution, and "malicious use of civil process" in American law can be found in Barry A. Lindahl, 4 Modern Tort Law: Liability and Litigation ch. 40 (updated June 2018) (available on Thomson Reuters Westlaw), which begins (§ 40.1) by differentiating the three concepts.  Meanwhile Justice Phang's opinion in Lee Tat takes an elegant snapshot of the common law world.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Anti-SLAPP gone wild: Massachusetts tightens the reins



The anti-SLAPP cases kept coming from the Massachusetts appeals courts in May.  I posted previously on anti-SLAPP in the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in February.  This posting describes three recent holdings, the middle of which substantially revised—and tightened—the anti-SLAPP qualification analysis.  The next two paragraphs recap some background on anti-SLAPP; skip right down to the cases if you like.  The Massachusetts anti-SLAPP statute is Mass. Gen. L. ch. 231, § 59H.

For a quick recap, “anti-SLAPP” refers to state statutes designed to forestall tort claims in “strategic lawsuits against public participation” (SLAPPs).  The prototypical SLAPP might be a land developer’s suit against environmental protestors for interference with the developer’s prospective economic relations.  The protestors are motivated by First Amendment right to speak and petition and are not acting wrongfully.  So, the logic goes, they should not be tied up in pricey and complex litigation having to assert the First Amendment as an affirmative defense.  Rather, they are entitled to a speedy dismissal.  In various forms and fashion across the states, anti-SLAPP statutes allow expedited process before the trial courts to dispense summarily with cases that ultimately would or should come out in defendants’ favor.

Furthermore for quick recap, I despise anti-SLAPP statutes.  They are yet another crutch for defense lawyers—complementing a broad array of defense privileges in common law and constitutional law—to cloak the perpetrators of defamation, privacy invasion, interference, and other torts in the false light (if you will) of constitutional holy writ.  Through unduly expedited process, anti-SLAPP deprives plaintiffs out of the gate of a fair chance to discover the damning evidence of defendants’ wrongful conduct—evidence often required by the aforementioned broad array of defenses, thus compounding the already ratcheted-up hurdles a plaintiff with meritorious cause must clear.

At ABA meetings, I have heard the defense lawyers of transnational mass media conglomerates speak of anti-SLAPP bills in the same tender timbre one employs to share photos of a newborn.  They are especially fond of anti-SLAPP laws that award attorneys’ fees to the prevailing defendant; imagine that Goliath bill arriving in David’s mailbox.  Such cooing should be evidence enough that the playing field has been unleveled.  And I was a defense lawyer, so I know of whom I speak.

That said, I would be foolish to assert that anti-SLAPP motions don’t often reach just results.  An unlevel playing field does not mean that the winning team is not the better.  I contend instead that anti-SLAPP gives a trial judge too much power to ballpark “right” and “wrong” in the absence of the fair evidentiary confrontation that our adversarial system requires.  These cases illustrate how the Massachusetts appellate courts are struggling to implement the state anti-SLAPP law fairly.

(1) The Case of the Ex-Spouse Who Won’t Let It Go

After what must have been an ugly divorce in the 1990s, Ms. St. Germain was left with a permanent protective order of no contact against her former husband, Mr. O’Gara.  In 2014, after receiving contact via post, St. Germain complained to police that O’Gara had violated the protective order.  Police arrested, charged, and then dismissed charges against O’Gara, who in turn sued St. Germain on various civil theories—breach of contract, abuse of process, malicious prosecution, tortious interference, and intentional infliction of emotional distress—for the police report that had precipitated his arrest.

Holding O’Gara’s civil suit “based entirely on [St. Germain’s] petitioning activity,” the court dismissed the civil suit upon St. Germain’s anti-SLAPP special motion, reversing the superior court.  The court reiterated that petitioning activity under the Massachusetts statute is to be construed broadly, “‘similar in purpose to the protections afforded public officials by the doctrine of governmental immunity’” (quoting precedent).  “Furthermore, § 59H covers petitioning activity regardless of whether it concerns a public or purely private matter.”

The statute first burdened defendant St. Germain, as special movant, with proving by preponderance that O’Gara’s lawsuit was based solely on her police report as petitioning activity, without other substantial basis.  Second, under the burden-shifting procedure of the statute, O’Gara would be compelled to prove by preponderance that St. Germain’s petition “‘(1) … was devoid of any reasonable factual support or any arguable basis in law and (2) … caused actual injury.’”

The trial judge had erred by skipping the first step of the inquiry and justifying discovery upon a “credible claim of injury caused by [St. Germain].”  Rather, first, St. Germain was correct in asserting that O’Gara’s suit concerned her police report solely as petitioning.  O’Gara had asserted that St. Germain was motivated by hostility, besides petitioning.  But the court concluded that whether or not she bore such motive was immaterial to the purely petitioning nature of the report.  Second, St. Germain was reasonable in believing her police report legally founded, despite the later dismissal of charges.  I.e., the police report was not a sham.

The case is O’Gara v. St. Germain, No. 15-P-1711 (Mass. App. Ct. May 11, 2017) (Justia).


Four incidents of alleged abuse or neglect of patients in a unit of the Steward Carney Hospital in Boston resulted in a mass dismissal of unit staff, including nurses.  Discussing the employment shake-up publicly in email to hospital staff and in statements to The Boston Globe, with a state investigation still underway, hospital administrators were vague on particulars.  The state later blamed three incidents on only one mental health counselor, and the fourth incident on staff, the latter conclusion the subject of ongoing legal contest.  Plaintiff nurses sued the hospital for defamation, and the hospital responded with an anti-SLAPP special motion. 

The Supreme Judicial Court, per Justice Barbara Lenk on May 23, reached a mixed result and remanded, furthermore finding occasion to tighten the requirements for an anti-SLAPP motion to succeed. 

Again illustrating the broad construction of petitioning activity, on the first step of the anti-SLAPP test, the hospital successfully asserted that the nurses’ lawsuit concerned statements to the press solely as protected petitioning, because the statements were “‘made to influence, inform, or at the very least, reach governmental bodies—either directly or indirectly’” (quoting precedent).  “The key requirement of this definition of petitioning is the establishment of a plausible nexus between the statement and the governmental proceeding.”  The Court held that statements to the Globe passed muster as indirectly aimed at state investigators  However, email to hospital staff, intended only for internal circulation, did not pass the test.

Here the Court steered off the road.  Initially the Court was flummoxed: what to do with a split outcome between allegedly defamatory statements?  Recall that the defendant must show that plaintiff’s suit concerned “solely” defendant’s petitioning activity.  What happens when some statements are petitioning and some are not?  Perhaps the anti-SLAPP motion must fail, because the defendants’ activity was not, then, purely petitioning.  Or perhaps the petitioning activity alone, here the Globe statements, advance to the second step of the test, burden shifting for the plaintiff to prove sham.  If plaintiff cannot prove sham petitioning, defamation might be dismissed in part.  The design of the complaint cannot be dispositive, for plaintiffs could evade anti-SLAPP by parsing counts.

That issue, however, proved to be only the crest of a hill concealing the drop off of a cliff.  For then the Court plunged into angst over the very enterprise of the anti-SLAPP analysis.  If a defendant cannot prove that the lawsuit is about solely petitioning activity, can the lawsuit not be a SLAPP?  Inversely, if a defendant proves that the lawsuit is about solely petitioning activity, and the petitioning was not a sham, does it follow necessarily that the lawsuit should be dismissed as a SLAPP?

Suppose, the Court proffered (quoting Illinois precedent), that defendant “‘spread malicious lies about an individual while in the course of genuinely petitioning the government for a favorable result.’”  The defendant passes muster under step one (if the statements are not parsed).  And the plaintiff cannot show sham under step two.  Case dismissed.  Yet “[i]f a plaintiff's complaint genuinely seeks redress for damages from defamation or other intentional torts and, thus, does not constitute a SLAPP, it is irrelevant whether the defendant[’s] actions were genuinely aimed at procuring favorable government action, result, or outcome.”

Thus the Court exposed a basic constitutional dilemma in anti-SLAPP: The plaintiff has a right to petition, too; plaintiff’s lawsuit is a constitutionally protected petition to the judiciary.  I would add, ignorance of this fact is why anti-SLAPP statutes, if not properly reined in by the courts, unfairly overcorrect in defendants’ favor.  One can argue that this operation of anti-SLAPP is a prophylactic protection for the petitioning rights of the defendant, thereby demanding that we tolerate dismissal of some meritorious causes of action—like the problematic “actual malice” rule of public-figure defamation.  But that argument fails to explain why the defendant’s petition right is superior to the plaintiff’s.

To solve this problem and mitigate its constitutional dilemma, the Supreme Judicial Court added a second way for the plaintiff to prove its way out of anti-SLAPP dismissal in step two of the test.  Recall that plaintiff bore the burden of prove sham petitioning by the defendant (and actual injury).  Well now the plaintiff may prove sham petitioning or plaintiff’s “suit was not ‘brought primarily to chill’ the [defendant]’s legitimate exercise of its right to petition.”  Thus, recalling the “malicious lies” example above, suppose furthermore that the plaintiff cared not one way or the other about the matter of defendant’s petition to the government.  Plaintiff rather was concerned with the malicious lies, however the matter was decided.  “A necessary but not sufficient factor in this analysis will be whether the [plaintiff]’s claim at issue is ‘colorable or … worthy of being presented to and considered by the court,’ … i.e., whether it ‘offers some reasonable possibility’ of a decision in the party’s favor.” 

On remand, then, the nurses would be able to avoid anti-SLAPP dismissal on the Globe statements, as well as the email, by showing the Globe statements a sham petition—unlikely—or by showing “that their defamation claim, viewed as a whole, is nonetheless not a ‘SLAPP’ suit.”  If they cannot meet their burden either way, then the hospital will be entitled to dismissal as to the Globe statements, the case over the email persisting.

The change is a dramatic one.  So modifying the plaintiff’s burden on step two of the test forces the trial court to confront head on the undisguised, central question of the anti-SLAPP inquiry.  Notwithstanding precedents that eschew focus on a plaintiff’s motives, the analysis inevitably steers the court back to ask whether the plaintiff is aggrieved by the hurtfulness of what the defendant did, or by the defendant’s aim to influence government.  For my money, one might as well ask that question at the start and be done with it.

The case is Blanchard v. Steward Carney Hospital, No. SJC-12141 (Mass. May 23, 2017) (Justia).


Justice Lenk issued a second opinion on anti-SLAPP for the Supreme Judicial Court the same day, May 23.  The case better fits the prototype anti-SLAPP mold in being a dispute over property development.  The Court remanded for application of its new Blanchard standard (case (2), immediately above).

In 2011, the plaintiff purchased a five-story brick building, 477 Harrison Avenue, Boston, to redevelop it for residential use.  Defendant JACE Boston owned neighboring 1234 Washington Street, which shared a wall with the Harrison property.  Defendant intended at some point to redevelop its property, too, and a competition ensued.  The parties disputed redevelopment plans in years of administrative process and litigation.  Finally in 2014, plaintiff sued defendant in superior court for abuse of process and for violation of Mass. Gen. L. ch. 93A, § 11, a broad state prohibition on unfair competition.

Upon defendant’s anti-SLAPP motion, the trial court determined that the defendant could not meet its step-one burden to show that the lawsuit was about solely petitioning activity, without other substantial basis.  The Court rather found that the abuse of process claim passed muster under step one, concerning solely defendant’s petitioning.  On step two, the plaintiff could not show that defendant’s petitioning, with respect to the abuse of process claim, was entirely a sham, that is devoid of factual and legal basis.  Nevertheless, under the newly announced Blanchard standard, the plaintiff on remand must be afforded the opportunity to resist dismissal by proving that its lawsuit is not a SLAPP—that is, “the motion judge may conclude with fair assurance,” “‘that [plaintiff’s] primary motivating goal in bringing its claim, viewed in its entirety, was “not to interfere with and burden defendants” … petition rights, but to seek damages for the personal harm to [the plaintiff] from [the] defendant[’s] alleged … [legally transgressive] acts.’”

Faced with “the novel issue as to whether all or only some of a [defendant’s] petitioning activities must be shown to be illegitimate in order to defeat a special motion to dismiss,” the Court decided that the plaintiff must “show that the entirety of its abuse of process claim is not a ‘SLAPP’ suit” to resist dismissal in full.  Otherwise, dismissal (and fees) are granted only for the “portion of the abuse of process claim arising out of the defendant[’s] protected petitioning activities.” 

The case is 477 Harrison Avenue v. JACE Boston, LLC, No. SJC-12150 (Mass. May 23, 2017) (Justia).

[UPDATE, Nov. 11, 2019: The SJC today issued another installment in 477 Harrison saga.  Remanding, the Court determined that abutters' counterclaims were retaliatory, not substantive, so should not be sustained against the developer.  I'll say again, anti-SLAPP was not designed to protect developers in land feuds, much less to generate multiple interlocutory dispositions, and this case speaks directly to the pathology of anti-SLAPP.]