Recently the Massachusetts SJC heard a case concerning Anti-SLAPP statutes and where the lines lay against the right to petition in Haverhill Stem LLC v. Jennings.
Anti-SLAPP (Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation) statutes allow defendants in a case to file a motion to dismiss on the grounds that the communication in question is an exercise of the defendant’s right to petition.
In Jennings, the plaintiffs, Caroline Pineau and Haverhill Stem LLC (“Pineau”), were attempting to open and operate a marijuana dispensary in Haverhill. The process of preparing to set up the dispensary began in 2018. At that time, Haverhill’s local ordinances forbid the operation of marijuana dispensaries in the downtown area, where the plaintiff’s business was intended to open. While laying the groundwork for the eventual opening of the dispensary, plaintiff Pineau’s family purchased the property next to the business owned by the defendants, Brad Brooks and Lloyd Jennings (“Jennings”).
While the plaintiffs attempted to get the necessary changes to the local ordinances to operate their dispensary, they were approached by Jennings who sought $30,000 from Pineau. Jennings had previously paid $30,000 to the prior owner of Pineau’s property to erect a deck on his own property that crossed the property boundary, and evidently wanted to extract his money back from the property/the property’s owners. If Jennings was not paid, Pineau was promised that he “would fight whatever Pineau proposes for use of the building.”
After this initial demand, there were several more meetings between Jennings and Pineau where Pineau described Jennings’s subsequent demands for payment as “threats” or “coercion.”
In early 2019 Haverhill allowed for marijuana dispensaries to operate in the town. Over the course of the following months, Jennings made remarks that Pineau “doesn’t know who she is dealing with” and that she would “see how Haverhill works.” At a meeting between the parties in April 2019, Jennings threatened Pineau’s husband that he would bring a RICO suit against Pineau and was “prepared to try and destroy the Pineaus and their business before it got off the ground.” Jennings further stated that he “was prepared to take everything from the Pineaus, including their house.”
In May, Jennings filed a suit in the Land Court in an effort to invalidate the marijuana zoning bylaw. In June, Pineau brought a complaint against Jennings alleging, among other things, violation of the Massachusetts Civil Rights Act and defamation. Jennings moved to dismiss under the anti-SLAPP statute, claiming that Jennings’s speech was protected by the right to petition the government. The defendants’ anti-SLAPP motion to dismiss was denied, which defendants’ appealed.
The court based its analysis of the defendants’ anti-SLAPP claims primarily on Blanchard v. Steward Carney Hosp., Inc., 483 Mass. 200 (2019) (Blanchard II); and Blanchard I, 477 Mass. 141. In Blanchard I the defendants in that case, a hospital and hospital officials, made a series of allegedly defamatory statements about the plaintiffs, nurses at a local hospital. One set of statements had been made to the Boston Globe newspaper. Those statements were determined to be protected by the right to petition under the anti-SLAPP legislation because, while the statements were not made to a government official/agency, the statements were made for the purpose of influencing a public agency. The distinguishing fact about the statements made were that they were “in connection with” an issue that was before a public agency. That connection allowed the defendants to potentially dismiss the claims.
Using the reasoning of Blanchard I, the court first established that Pineau’s claims did not derive solely from protected petitioning activity, but rather the claims were based on the coercive practices Jennings employed to try to get money from Pineau. Having survived the initial question of an anti-SLAPP motion- re: whether the activity at issue was solely one of petitioning- the court went on to examine the actual content of Jennings’s statements. Finding that the statements about destroying Pineau economically and otherwise threatening Pineau unless they were paid was the true basis of the redress sought, the court ruled that Pineau’s claims must survive an anti-SLAPP motion to dismiss.
The court conceded that, while some of the defendants’ actions were protected petitioning, and that the general type of conduct they were engaged in was not inherently objectionable- a person may lodge their objections to change of laws, use impassioned- even “fighting” language to convey a point, or try to resolve an issue by making claims for compensation- a motion to dismiss under an anti-SLAPP statute must be based on the fact that a claim against the defendant is solely about protected petitioning activity.
Having established that the claim against Jennings was not solely about their protected petitioning activity, the court ultimately affirmed the denial of Jennings’s motion to dismiss.