SLAPP Law Bars Firefighter’s Lawsuit

Massachusetts is one of many states that has adopted the commonly referred to anti-SLAPP laws. SLAPP is an acronym for “Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation.” The notion behind the anti-SLAPP laws is to protect citizens from lawsuits designed to chill their constitutional right to petition the government for redress of grievances. SLAPP suits have been characterized as “generally meritless suits brought by large private interests to deter common citizens from exercising their political or legal rights or to punish them for doing so.”

Most anti-SLAPP statutes allow for an early motion to dismiss a meritless lawsuit. Often, anti-SLAPP statutes allow the defendant in the lawsuit to recover attorney’s fees from the person bringing the lawsuit.

These principles were applied by the Appeals Court of Massachusetts in a case brought by a former firefighter against the widow of another firefighter.

The case involved Thomas Wynne, a firefighter with the City of Greenfield, Massachusetts. In the summer of 1995, Wynne came to believe that Kenneth Creigle and several others who had been hired as firefighters before Wynne had falsely identified Greenfield as their place of residence to take advantage of an in-town hiring preference.

Thereafter followed a series of letters, petitions, and even a lawsuit brought by Wynne against Creigle and others concerning the residency preference. Wynne lost all of his complaints about the residency issue.

In 1998, Creigle committed suicide. Immediately after Creigle’s death, his widow requested that Wynne not attend any services, stating that her husband’s suicide followed his harassment by Wynne at and outside of work.

Later in 1998, Wynne began demonstrating a series of performance problems on the job. In the investigation, the Fire Chief took statements from 15 firefighters (half of the Department), Wynne, and Creigle’s widow. The firefighters unanimously felt that Wynne was causing severe distress in the Department and should be fired. Their statements described Wynne as an angry man who had harassed the Creigles on numerous occasions.

In her own written statement, Creigle’s widow indicated she and her husband had been harassed by Wynne. She stated that copies of his civil lawsuit had been taped to her husband’s car window, that Wynne would sit next to Creigle in the watch room to intimidate him and start a fight, that Wynne often made prank phone calls to their home, and that Wynne would inappropriately drive into their driveway at night.

After a departmental hearing, the Chief proposed that Wynne receive a reprimand and paid administrative leave. When Wynne failed to accept the reprimand, the Chief concluded his investigation and terminated Wynne. Wynne responded by filing lawsuits against a wide variety of people, including Creigle’s widow.

Citing the anti-SLAPP statute, Creigle’s widow moved to dismiss Wynne’s lawsuit. The Appeals Court of Massachusetts upheld her request, and ordered Wynne to pay her attorney’s fees, both at the trial level and on appeal.

The Court found that Wynne’s lawsuit against Creigle’s widow, which brought on a defamation of character theory, was based on her legitimate “petitioning” activities in cooperating with the Department’s investigation. Wynne cited the fact that Creigle’s widow repeated the same statements in an interview with a local newspaper. The Court found that fact inconsequential: “Taken in context, her mere repetition of those statements to the media was also possessed of the character of petitioning activity. Creigle’s widow has met her burden of showing that Wynne’s action against her was based on protected petitioning activities alone and had no substantial basis other than or in addition to the petitioning activities.”

Wynne v. Creigle, 825 N.E.2d 559 (Mass.App. 2005).

This article appears in the June 2005 issue