by Jeffrey J. Pyle
Anyone who has litigated a special motion to dismiss under the Massachusetts anti-SLAPP law knows they are typically won or lost on the question of whether the suit is based on “petitioning” activity. Passed in 1991 to protect citizens from “strategic lawsuits against public participation,” the anti-SLAPP law, G.L. c. 231, § 59H, provides that if a plaintiff brings a lawsuit based on the defendant’s exercise of its constitutional right to petition, the trial court must dismiss the action—and award attorneys’ fees—unless the plaintiff proves that the defendant’s petitioning was devoid of legal or factual merit and that the plaintiff suffered damages. Proof that petitioning activity is “devoid” of merit is difficult for a plaintiff to assemble at the pleadings stage, so the fight usually centers on the first part of the analysis: whether the activity in question was in fact “petitioning.”
The Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) has repeatedly held that the anti-SLAPP statute applies only to parties who seek redress of grievances of their own or otherwise petition on their own behalf, not to those who air the grievances of others. However, in the recent case of Cardno Chemrisk v. Foytlin, 476 Mass. 479 (2017), the Court softened that rule, extending protection to opinion writing that addresses subjects of broad political and social concern.
The defendants in the case, Cherri Foytlin and Karen Savage, are environmental activists concerned about the effects of contamination from the Deepwater Horizon oil rig spill on the Gulf Coast and on cleanup workers. On October 13, 2013, they published an article in the Huffington Post about ongoing federal litigation against British Petroleum (“BP”) in Louisiana, in which BP asserted that only a minimal amount of oil escaped as a result of the explosion of the rig. In their article, Foytlin and Savage state that BP “does not exactly have a reputation for coming clean on the facts surrounding the disaster,” and they held up as an example a report written for BP by Cardno ChemRisk, LLC (“ChemRisk”), a scientific consulting firm, which concluded that cleanup workers had not been exposed to harmful levels of certain chemicals. Foytlin and Savage disputed ChemRisk’s independence and stated that it had “a long, and on at least one occasion fraudulent, history of defending big polluters, using questionable ethics to help their clients avoid legal responsibility for their actions.” ChemRisk sued the pair for libel.
In their anti-SLAPP motion to dismiss ChemRisk’s suit, Foytlin and Savage argued that their article was written in connection with pending court proceedings, and therefore met the statute’s definition of “a party’s exercise of its right of petition.” The Superior Court acknowledged that the defendants were activists and that they “wrote and posted the article as part of their work to influence ongoing governmental proceedings and court cases,” yet denied their motion on the ground that the article addressed the grievances of only the cleanup workers, not those of Foytlin and Savage themselves. The Superior Court relied on a line of cases denying protection to those not seeking redress of “grievance[s] of [one’s] own”—in particular, Fustolo v. Hollander, 455 Mass. 861 (2010), which upheld the denial of an anti-SLAPP motion by a journalist who had written objective news stories about a controversial development project because the stories were not written to advocate her own point of view.
On direct appellate review in Cardno Chemrisk, the SJC reversed, declining to extend the reasoning in Fustolo to the case against Foytlin and Savage. It would take “a constrained view” of the First Amendment petitioning right, the Court held, to deny protection to environmental activists sued for publishing an opinionated news article about environmental devastation against the backdrop of pending court proceedings. Citing Town of Hanover v. New England Reg’l Council of Carpenters, 467 Mass. 587, 594 (2014), the Court held that the anti-SLAPP law, “like the constitutional right it safeguards, protects those looking to ‘advance[e] causes in which they believe,’” including the cause of protecting the environment. The Court distinguished Fustolo by explaining that the journalist there had been “employed to write, and did write, impartial news articles, despite having personal views on the same subjects,” and her “objectivity was pivotal to the decision insofar as the reporter was not exercising her own constitutional right to petition when authoring the challenged articles.” That was not the case with Foytlin and Savage, whose personal views were reflected clearly in their article.
The Cardno Chemrisk decision is welcome news for writers of blogs, op-eds and letters to the editor about issues before government bodies. Such publications are now protected if they espouse the author’s “personal views,” even if they are not intended to protect the writer’s own “private rights.” However, the SJC did not articulate a test to determine whether writing is opinionated as opposed to “impartial” and “objective” news reporting—concepts that may have less of an agreed-upon meaning now than at any time in modern history. One can only guess, for example, how the SJC would rule in a case about a muckraking investigative article that presents hard facts in a manner obviously intended to make a case for government reform, but that does so without overtly stating that the author is presenting “personal views.”
The Cardno Chemrisk decision also raises questions about the scope of protection afforded to professionals, including lawyers and experts, who assist the petitioning activities of others. In an earlier decision, Kobrin v. Gastfriend, 443 Mass. 327 (2005), the SJC denied anti-SLAPP protection to a physician expert testifying for the government in a regulatory proceeding because he was not petitioning on his own behalf. The Cardno Chemrisk court distinguished Kobrin on the ground that the physician was acting as a mere “vendor of services” who had a “merely contractual” relationship to the issues in the case—unlike Foytlin and Savage, who were advancing a cause in which they believed. Yet the Court previously indicated that attorneys who represent parties petitioning the government must be protected by the anti-SLAPP law—despite their status as mere “vendor[s] of services”—lest their exclusion cause a “chilling effect” on petitioning. Cadle Co. v. Schlichtmann, 448 Mass. 242, 252 (2007). Clarification of this issue, and of the scope of petitioning rights more generally, will have to await future cases.
Jeffrey J. Pyle is a partner in the Media and First Amendment Law Practice Group at Prince Lobel Tye in Boston, Massachusetts. Along with Thomas Sutcliffe of Prince Lobel and Sarah Wunsch of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts (ACLUM), Jeff submitted an amicus brief in Cardno Chemrisk v. Foytlin on ACLUM’s behalf.