Recently, we were selected by a local television station to comment on a Missouri Court of Appeals decision upholding the dismissal of a “SLAPP” suit. SLAPP is an acronym for Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation. Although the Missouri Legislature passed a law providing for expedited review of SLAPP suits, the case in question predated the effective date of the legislation.
The case before the court concerned the trash transfer station in South St. Louis County. A vocal opponent of the plan called the site developer a “trash terrorist” at the top of a flyer urging citizens to write and call their council members. The developer immediately filed suit alleging defamation and conspiracy and requested an injunction be issued. A motion to dismiss was filed, which was denied. The defendant sought relief by requesting that a writ be issued by the Court of Appeals which, after being briefed on the case, decided that calling someone a “trash terrorist” was not defamation in the context of the facts of the case.
The reasoning of the Court was that, while Americans are more sensitive to the word “terrorist” since 9-11, here the opponent of the trash transfer station was merely engaging in “imaginative expression or rhetorical hyperbole,” and there was no hint of suggestion that the developer was a “terrorist” in the sinister sense of the word.
The television reporter questioned the Firm’s Managing Officer, David Weiss, regarding the impact of the decision on the viability of SLAPP suits and the effect of the SLAPP legislation.
Although the legislation grants expedited consideration of dispositive motions and appeal, and if money damages are requested, a shifting of attorneys’ fees and court costs if the defendant prevails in defeating the allegations, neither the legislation nor the court decision denies an entity or person from instituting a SLAPP suit. If the opponent of a proposed action utters falsities or engages in conduct that “crosses the line,” the suit may be found to be proper. Thus, no one should assume that they have immunity when opposing, or in the manner of opposing, a proposal drawing public policies or issues into the discussion.
While a prevailing defendant in a SLAPP suit is entitled to have their attorneys’ fees and court costs reimbursed, such a benefit is only available if money damages are sought. One of the criticisms of SLAPP suits is that they intimidate ordinary persons from opposing developments because of the potential substantial costs in defending such a suit. Thus, if only an injunction is sought, neither expedited consideration of the merits of the case, nor the right to have attorneys’ fees and court costs reimbursed, is available.
The attorneys at Weiss Attorneys at Law have been involved with a number of cases which created substantial discussion of public policies in their immediate communities. If we can be of assistance in counseling you or your company in a course of action regarding any type of litigation, please contact us.
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