On June 29, 2017, the First Circuit Court of Appeals decided Steinmetz v. Coyle Caron, Inc. That case, which has its roots in the mundane desire of a couple to build a new home on their land in Cohasset, gave rise to some interesting and complicated constitutional questions.
The Steinmetzes needed approval from the local Conservation Commission for their project. A group of neighbors opposing the construction hired Coyle & Caron, a Florida landscaping firm, to prepare and present renderings of the proposed home to the Conservation Commission. At least one draft rendering also was posted on Facebook. The Conservation Commission denied the Steimentzes’ application. Claiming that the renderings had a dramatic impact on the Conservation Commission and that its renderings were false, fraudulent, negligent, defamatory and an unfair or deceptive trade practice prohibited by G.L. c. 93A, § 9, the Steinmetzes filed an action against Coyle & Caron in federal court.
Coyle & Caron filed a “special” motion to dismiss the case pursuant to the Massachusetts “anti-SLAPP” statute, G.L. c. 231, § 59H. That statute was designed to protect against developers asserting weak, but nevertheless expensive to defend claims in order to silence neighbors and other citizens who oppose a project (thus, the acronym for “Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation”). The anti-SLAPP statute allows those being sued to file special motions to obtain the speedy dismissal of such claims without incurring substantial litigation expenses. As an added disincentive for those who would file SLAPP cases, the losing party must pay the reasonable legal fees and costs of the party winning a special motion to dismiss.
The trial judge allowed Coyle & Caron’s special motion to dismiss and the Steinmetzes appealed. While noting that the case presented “an array of interpretive and constitutional issues,” the First Circuit limited its decision to a few important points.
The First Circuit readily concluded that Coyle & Caron’s renderings fell within the statute’s definition of “an exercise of its right of petition.” However, the decision ran into difficulty when it turned to whether the protected right of petition includes “vendors of services” in addition to parties who themselves petition the government as citizens. Although the case was filed in federal court, it turned on interpreting the Massachusetts anti-SLAPP statute. After reviewing a number of opinions by the Massachusetts Appeals Court and the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”), the First Circuit concluded that the state law is “insufficiently clear for us to rule definitively on the applicability of the anti-SLAPP statute to Coyle & Caron.” Therefore, the First Circuit asked the SJC to provide guidance by certifying to it the question of whether a third-party contractor that made submissions to a governmental body for the purpose of assisting in its private client’s petitioning activity can avail itself of the special motion to dismiss provision of the Massachusetts anti-SLAPP statute.
The First Circuit’s decision did go on to address the other factors required to defeat the special motion to dismiss. First, the Court held that the Steinmetzes failed to establish that “no reasonable person could conclude” that there was factual support behind the renderings or that they were sham petitioning activity. Having so found, the Court did not look at the other question raised by the special motion to dismiss of whether Coyle & Caron’s actions caused actual injury to the Steinmetzes.
The Court also considered whether the claims against Coyle & Caron were brought primarily to chill its legitimate petitioning activities, which analysis in part turned on whether the claims are colorable or worthy of being presented to and considered by the Court. The First Circuit concluded that the negligence, gross negligence and Chapter 93A claims could not clear this bar and held that those claims must be dismissed if the anti-SLAPP statute applies to Coyle & Caron.
In contrast, the First Circuit could not find that the defamation claim offered no reasonable possibility of a decision in the Stemimetzes’ favor and so did not dismiss that claim. Instead, it sent back to the trial court the question of whether the defamation claim also must be dismissed under the special motion after that court considered the SJC’s answer and the totality of the circumstances concerning the Steinmetzes’ intent in bringing their claims.
The First Circuit did not address the Steinmetzes’ interesting claim that the anti-SLAPP statute was unconstitutional because it deprived them of a right to a jury trial. That said, the First Circuit did leave the door open for the SJC to address this point by inviting the SJC to any additional observations about Massachusetts law that it might wish to offer (a right to jury trial is guaranteed by Part 1, Article 15 of the Commonwealth’s Constitution).
It will be interesting to learn what the SJC has to say when it responds to the First Circuit’s request. Regardless of its answer, battles between those wanting to develop their land and their neighbors will continue to rage as long as the real estate market remains hot.