Underlying the case was a residential construction project in Cohasset, Massachusetts, a coastal community located near Boston. Before construction could begin, the plaintiff owner needed permits and approvals from various local sources including the town conservation commission. A group of neighbors opposed the planned construction and to make their point, hired the defendant design contractor to prepare renderings of the proposed structure for the commission. According to the plaintiff owner, these renderings were "false, fraudulent, and defamatory" and "depicted a 'hideous behemoth looming over the tree line of the island.'" Also at least one of the renderings had been posted on a Facebook page created by the neighborhood group. The commission ultimately denied the construction project and the plaintiff owner sued the defendant contractor alleging negligence, gross negligence, defamation, and violation of the Massachusetts consumer protection statute, Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 93A.
In turn, the defendant contractor filed a "special motion" to dismiss relying on the Massachusetts anti-SLAPP statute, Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 231, § 59H. (Note that about 1/2 of the 50 states have adopted similar statutes as well.) Anti-SLAPP statutes are aimed at preventing lawsuits that serve to chill the valid exercise of free speech. In other words, prohibiting suits that try to silence or intimidate critics by making them spend time and money to defend claims brought against them. Motions to dismiss these lawsuits are granted unless the lawsuit-filing plaintiff can show the criticism "was devoid of any reasonable factual support or any arguable basis in law" and the criticism caused "actual injury." Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 231, § 59H. Massachusetts recently adopted a gloss to this shifting standard by allowing non-moving party (lawsuit-filing plaintiff) to demonstrate that the claims were not "primarily brought to chill" the petitioning activities and that there is "'some reasonable possibility’ of a decision in the party's favor." Blanchard v. Steward Carney Hosp., Inc., 75 N.E.3d 21 (2017).
Here, the defendant contractor claimed that the plaintiff owner's lawsuit was motivated to silence the speech of the neighborhood group -- of which the defendant contractor was hired to assist by preparing the renderings. The First Circuit confirmed that if the anti-SLAPP regime applied here, the defendant contractor's renderings constituted a petitioning activity, the renderings were not void of factual basis, and the the plaintiff owner's claims were frivolous (it did not need to reach the question whether the claims "primarily brought to chill"). However the Court concluded that "given our uncertainty that the anti-SLAPP statute applies to third-party contractors . . . in the first place, we certify that question to the [Supreme Judicial Court]." Steinmetz, 862 F.3d at 136. In so doing the Court commented that the Supreme Judicial Court "has warned several times, albeit in dicta, that the statute encompasses only parties who “petition their government as citizens, not as vendors of services" Id.
Once the Supreme Judicial Court presents its answer to this question we will update this blog. In the meantime contractors, especially in Massachusetts, are cautioned that the anti-SLAPP defense may not exist in its defense arsenal.
The author, Katharine Kohm, is a committee member for The Dispute Resolver. Katharine practices construction law and commercial litigation in Rhode Island and Massachusetts. She is an associate at Pierce Atwood, LLP in Providence, Rhode Island. She may be contacted at 401-490-3407 or kkohm@PierceAtwood.com.