Showing posts with label tortious interference. Show all posts
Showing posts with label tortious interference. Show all posts

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Abraham & White would limit further extension
of First Amendment as tort defense

In a new article, Kenneth S. Abraham and G. Edward White, University of Virginia Law, argue against the further extension of the First Amendment ("imperialism") to constitutionalize tort law when torts are accomplished through speech.  Specifically, they study the First Amendment in defamation, privacy, and IIED before contemplating the First Amendment problems that lurk in fraud, product disparagement, product warning defect, and interference.  The interference problem has interested me since The Insider.  En route to their conclusion, the authors critically examine the truth-falsity dichotomy.  Here is the abstract for First Amendment Imperialism and the Constitutionalization of Tort Liability.
To what extent does the First Amendment impose limits on the permissible scope of tort liability? Until recently, the clear answer would have been, “only under very limited circumstances.” During the last few decades, however, the First Amendment has been so greatly expanding its empire that giving this answer is no longer possible. “All bets are off” would be a more accurate answer, because the forms of speech to which the Supreme Court has extended First Amendment protection have become impressively broad. Although existing First Amendment restrictions on the permissible scope of tort liability currently are limited, the very existence of those restrictions confirms that many torts involving speech potentially are subject to First Amendment protection. And many torts do involve speech – the duty to warn about the dangers of prescription drugs, fraud, and even some forms of simple negligence are just a few examples.

If the First Amendment of the future limited all or even many of these different constitutionally unprotected forms of tort liability, then its scope would be pervasive. We contend, however, that neither existing First Amendment doctrine nor sensible constitutional policy supports extending free speech protection to torts that are accomplished through speech, except in extremely narrow circumstances. Extending First Amendment protection to such torts would aggravate what we argue are two of the principal risks posed by First Amendment imperialism: the erosion of the cultural distinction between truth and falsity, and devaluation of the status of speech about matters of public concern. Our contention is that most of the forms of speech involved in torts that are accomplished through speech currently are, and should remain, excluded from First Amendment protection. To support this contention, we examine the First Amendment’s extension to previously unprotected forms of speech over the last three-quarters of a century, compare the new First Amendment protections to the doctrinal elements of a series of torts that always or often are accomplished through speech, and argue that it would make little sense, as a matter of tort or constitutional law, to restrict liability for those torts on First Amendment grounds.
 Hat tip @ TortsProf.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Mass. SJC remands internet jurisdiction, defamation case


The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) last week remanded an internet jurisdiction case because the lower court jumped to constitutional due process arguments without first applying the state long-arm jurisdiction statute.  The case, replete with fun Internet trade names, highlights the limits of Massachusetts long-arm jurisdiction relative to the global growth in jurisdictional reach in online commerce.

SCVNGR, Inc., doing business as "LevelUp," is a Delaware-incorporated, Boston-headquartered tech company that works with customers through an app to promote participating restaurants with deals and a special payment system.  Punchh is a Delaware-incorporated, California-headquartered company with a similar business model.  Punchh works with customers in Massachusetts and with restaurants with Massachusetts locations, but Punchh denies any physical tie to Massachusetts.

At one time, LevelUp and Punchh entered into an agreement to work together.  But according to LevelUp, Punchh then bad-mouthed LevelUp to LevelUp clients.  LevelUp terminated their agreement, but the allegations state, the bad-mouthing didn't stop.  LevelUp sued in Massachusetts superior court on theories including defamation, trade defamation, tortious interference, and statutory unfair competition.  Punchh disputed personal jurisdiction.

The trial court dismissed for want of personal jurisdiction on federal constitutional due process grounds.  The trial court declined to apply the state long-arm statute because, the court explained, the parties had only argued due process.  LevelUp appealed, and the SJC transferred the case from the appeals court sua sponte.  Notwithstanding the trial court's dispositive conclusion on due process, the SJC opined, it was reversible error not to analyze the state long-arm law first.  That is to say, it was reversible error not to have observed the doctrine of constitutional avoidance.

The Massachusetts long-arm statute is not the typical sort that U.S. law students read about in civil procedure, defining state personal jurisdiction as maximally co-extensive with the limits of constitutional due process.  Rather, Massachusetts constrains long-arm jurisdiction to eight scenarios:

  • (a) transacting any business in this commonwealth;
  • (b) contracting to supply services or things in this commonwealth;
  • (c) causing tortious injury by an act or omission in this commonwealth;
  • (d) causing tortious injury in this commonwealth by an act or omission outside this commonwealth if he regularly does or solicits business, or engages in any other persistent course of conduct, or derives substantial revenue from goods used or consumed or services rendered, in this commonwealth;
  • (e) having an interest in, using or possessing real property in this commonwealth;
  • (f) contracting to insure any person, property or risk located within this commonwealth at the time of contracting;
  • (g) maintaining a domicile in this commonwealth while a party to a personal or marital relationship out of which arises a claim for divorce, alimony, property settlement, parentage of a child, child support or child custody; or the commission of any act giving rise to such a claim; or
  • (h) having been subject to the exercise of personal jurisdiction of a court of the commonwealth which has resulted in an order of alimony, custody, child support or property settlement, [in certain modification or enforcement proceedings].

Certainly the statute affords plenty of room to argue still over the bounds of due process.  But the terms of a statute may be subject to limiting construction.

The SJC declined to hint at the appropriate outcome under the statute, bemoaning an incomplete record.  However, the Court observed that the first four provisions of the statute, paragraphs (a) to (d), might be in play.  In a footnote, the Court recalled Calder v. Jones, 465 U.S. 783 (1984) (Justia), in which the U.S. Supreme Court allowed California jurisdiction over a non-resident defamation defendant because the defendant was alleged to have calculated its libel to cause injury in California.  As the SJC moreover observed, the U.S. Supreme Court later limited Calder in Walden v. Fiore, 134 S. Ct. 1115 (2014) (Justia), finding "minimum contacts" wanting when a non-resident's "allegedly unlawful seizure of money elsewhere caused harm to plaintiffs living in Nevada."

The Calder-Walden dichotomy, played out in a defamation context such as SCVNGR v. Punchh, serves as reminder that the United States has rather a dearth of case law in the area of long-arm Internet jurisdiction.  After the earth-rattling assertion of jurisdiction by the High Court of Australia in Dow Jones v. Gutnick in 2002, observers such as me should be forgiven for expecting that we would have moved the ball forward a good bit more in 15 years.  Internet jurisdiction remains a turbulent battlefield in lower domestic courts both here and around the world.

The case is SCVNGR, Inc. v. Punchh, Inc., No. SJC-12297 (Mass. Nov. 8, 2017).

[UPDATE: The Superior Court denied jurisdiction under the long-arm statute in September 2018.  See coverage at Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly (MLW), by Eric T. Berkman (subscription required) (quoting yours truly).  Image at right from MLW.] 

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.]