The Appeals Court issued an important decision this week on the interplay between zoning and the Massachusetts Anti-SLAPP law. The full decision, Haverhill Stem LLC v. Jennings, is below.
What is Anti-SLAPP?
As I’ve written before, Massachusetts (like many other states) has a law that prohibits “SLAPP” lawsuits, an acronym for “Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation.” Such lawsuits aim to punish one’s right to petition the government, such as pursuing zoning relief.
Massachusetts’s anti-SLAPP law allows a party to file a special motion to dismiss such a lawsuit. A successful motion entitles the moving party to costs and reasonable attorney fees, making it a powerful weapon for attacking baseless lawsuits.
Anti-SLAPP, however, is limited to a narrow type of lawsuit: one that is solely based upon petitioning activity. If the opposing party can show that their lawsuit had a basis other than punishing the other party for petitioning activity, anti-SLAPP won’t apply.
Zoning and Anti-SLAPP
Zoning matters often implicate anti-SLAPP matters. The reason for this, in my opinion, is that zoning appeals are sometimes brought for nefarious purposes, such as stalling a development or attempting to punish another party. In certain limited cases, anti-SLAPP may apply to zoning disputes.
Haverhill Stem LLC concerned a zoning request for a marijuana dispensary in Haverhill. Another party objected to this project and demanded compensation to drop their opposition to the dispensary. Such demands escalated with numerous verbal and written threats.
Eventually, the party opposing the marijuana dispensary brought a lawsuit against this project in Land Court, seeking to invalidate the recreational marijuana zoning bylaw on several grounds.
Shortly after, the developer sued the opponent of the project under a variety of claims, including Chapter 93A and defamation. The opponent sought dismissal under anti-SLAPP, arguing that the lawsuit was punishment for its opposition to the dispensary. The trial court denied this motion, and the opponent appealed.
Haverhill Stem LLC upheld the denial of the anti-SLAPP motion, reasoning that the lawsuit was not based solely on petitioning activity. In other words, the lawsuit wasn’t simply filed to punish the other side for opposing the dispensary. Rather, the developer had a basis for the lawsuit on grounds of coercion and extortion.
This case affirms a central requirement of anti-SLAPP: the protections of this law apply only against a lawsuit solely based on petitioning activity. In other words, if one can show they have an otherwise legitimate purpose for legal action, anti-SLAPP likely will not apply.
Legal actions, of course, are often pursued for reasons other than the relief sought in them. This case, however, is clear that there is a high bar for implicating anti-SLAPP.
Anti-SLAPP, however, is great protection against frivolous lawsuits under the appropriate circumstances. The key, however, is to make a compelling case in the limited situations where it can apply.
If you need assistance with zoning and anti-SLAPP, contact me for a consultation.s20P0537