SJC Establishes New Framework in MRW “Anti-SLAPP” Case
Following up a previous post, the SJC ruled this summer in the Blanchard v. Steward Carney Hospital, Inc. anti-SLAPP matter, which Attorney Dahlia Rudavsky argued last December. In that case, the nine plaintiffs, nurses at Steward Carney Hospital, claim that the Hospital’s president, Bill Walczak, defamed them in an email to hospital employees and in two Boston Globe articles. Walczak had criticized the Nurses’ work performance and commitment to patients. Steward asked the SJC to dismiss the defamation claim, arguing that Walczak’s remarks were all protected because they were part of Steward’s “petitioning” the government to renew Carney’s license to operate its adolescent psych unit. The Nurses countered that Walczak’s speech was not protected, because it was too far removed from Steward’s petitioning efforts.
In the new decision, the SJC held that Walczak’s email to hospital employees was not petitioning, and that the Nurses could pursue their defamation claim. As for the Globe comments, the SJC held that: a) Walczak’s comments could be construed as “petitioning,” but that b) it does not follow that the portion of the Nurses’ claim based on the Globe comments must be dismissed.
Instead, the SJC sent the matter back to the lower court to be re-evaluated under an unexpected, fresh approach to the issue. Rather than simply examining the nature of Steward’s speech – whether it is “petitioning” or not – under the new test, the trial court must examine what motivated the Nurses in bringing their claim.
As a result, the Nurses now have the opportunity to demonstrate that they had legitimate reasons for bringing their defamation claim, namely, to seek redress for the damages they have suffered, and that they did not sue in order to disrupt Steward’s petitioning the government, or to punish Steward for having done so. If the Nurses meet their burden, the claim will not be dismissed under the anti-SLAPP statute. Briefing is underway, and the lower court will hear oral argument in late November.
A full version of the SJC’s decision can be found here.
477 Mass. 141 *; 75 N.E.3d 21 **; 2017 Mass. LEXIS 350 ***