In a 1989 paper published in the Environmental Impact Assessment Review, Canan, who is currently on sabbatical at the University of California, where she is continuing her research on SLAPPs with a grant from the National Science Foundation, writes, "Economic and emotional injury to the citizens who speak out is reprehensible. More dangerous may be the loss of debate on serious environmental issues and the incalculable ripple effects on others who learn that there is a price to pay for citizen participation in public debates."
Take Jim Baker's case. Baker was the president of Plan-Kent, a citizens' group in the town of Kent in rural Putnam County, N.Y., which is the site of several reservoirs serving New York City. In 1988, Plan-Kent opposed a proposed large attached-town house project on the basis that no comprehensive study had been done to determine the development's potential impact on water supplies, sewage disposal, roads and schools, in possible violation of the [ New York] State Environmental Quality Review Act. In enacting this law in 1975, the state legislature declared that "every citizen has a responsibility to contribute to the preservation and enhancement of the quality of the environment." Because of that call to action, Plan-Kent petitioned a judge to rule on the town planning board's approval of the project.
However, the condo developer, Joseph Cioccolanti, sued Plan-Kent, Baker and the group's vice-president for $64 million. Cioccolanti also named "John Doe" and "Jane Doe" as potential defendants, which meant that any Plan-Kent members who came forward to show support would risk being named as defendants. "People were frightened by the suit," says Baker. "They thought that if they knew Jim Baker or sympathized with our concerns, they were likely to be included [in the suit]."
Then Fred A. Dickinson, a local state supreme court judge (despite its title, the supreme court is the lowest in New York's judicial hierarchy), dealt Plan-Kent another blow, ruling that there was no violation of the State Environmental Quality Review Act. Baker consulted a New York City environmental law firm and was told that it would take $150,000 to appeal Dickinson's decision.
"I couldn't risk people losing their homes," Baker says, and he and Plan-Kent gave up. Cioccolanti dropped his suit, and last summer work began on the project—only to cease in November because of the downturn in the real estate market. Cioccolanti has plans to resume work this spring.
Still, the SLAPP had sent its message: If you speak out, you can get sued. That's what happened to Monia, who headed the West Valley Taxpayers and Environmentalists Association (WVTEA) in Saratoga. In common with many other SLAPP suits, the case against Victor Monia involved a suburban area that, many residents feared, was losing its quality of life because of development. This confrontation began in 1980 when WVTEA successfully pushed for a referendum that resulted in a one-year moratorium on hillside development while the city was mandated to develop a controlled-growth plan. A month after the moratorium went into effect the Parnas company, a development firm, sued WVTEA and two other citizens' groups, plus the president of each group, for $40 million. Parnas alleged that it had been defamed in a flier circulated before the election.
"People melted away," Monia says, adding that he and WVTEA had nothing to do with the flier. "We had had a very active organization with 550 homeowners, and we had won 16 or 18 elections in a row. The year after the suit, we won only one and lost three or four. Membership in the first year dropped to 100, and by the second year of the suit, it was really only the board of directors and hard-core folks, about 25 of us, who were left. People wondered about our judgment. Were they going to be dragged in? People who had been very active just sort of disappeared. They wouldn't even sign a petition."
For Monia, the suit had other ramifications. "I became so preoccupied by the suit that it changed my whole focus and direction in life," he says. "I got appraisals on the house and thought of moving to Oregon. I'm like most Americans: My assets are in my home. This case was an overhanging cloud. Even though you may prevail, you'll spend a ton of money fighting it. You can win and still lose. I didn't function well at work because I was trying to figure out how I was going to protect my family. The president [of the firm Monia worked for] called me in one day and said my performance wasn't satisfactory and asked me for my resignation. If I didn't resign, I'd get fired the next day. I resigned."
But Monia doggedly carried on in behalf of WVTEA, and in 1982 the SLAPP suit was dismissed for lack of prosecution on the part of Parnas. Monia then decided to sue Parnas and Steven Bernard, Parnas's attorney—he wanted to SLAPP back, so to speak. Before going to trial, Bernard settled, for a six-figure amount. In 1989 a jury awarded Monia $260,000 in damages in his malicious prosecution suit against Parnas. Last month, the Sixth Appellate District of the California Court of Appeals upheld the jury verdict and the award. Monia, who now has his own business, says getting SLAPPed is not an experience he would like to undergo again. "Ever get sued for 40 million bucks?" he asks.
SLAPP-backs like Monia's have resulted in some remarkable jury verdicts, particularly in California. Raymond Leonardini, a Sacramento lawyer and a former state consumer-protection official, told health officials that plastic pipe made from a Shell Oil resin possibly contained a carcinogen. Shell SLAPPed Leonardini for trade libel. Shell subsequently dropped the suit, and Leonardini then countersued for malicious prosecution. A jury awarded him $5,197,000. The decision was appealed and eventually ended up before the U.S. Supreme Court, which refused to hear it, thereby letting the award stand.