Plaintiffs Raised a Question of Fact Whether “SLAPP” Suit Has a Substantial Basis in Fact and Law
The Second Department, over a long and detailed dissent, determined defendant, Petrucci, was entitled to summary judgment on the question whether the action against her constituted a SLAPP suit under the Civil Rights Law, but was not entitled to summary judgment on the merits. SLAPP stands for “strategic lawsuit against public participation.” The statute, Civil Rights law 76-a(1), seeks to prohibit lawsuits brought against citizens who are critical of public bodies. Although finding that the suit is properly characterized as a SLAPP suit, the majority further determined the plaintiffs had raised questions of fact about whether their action “has a substantial basis in fact and law.” Plaintiffs have leases with the Port Authority. Plaintiffs alleged that Petrucci falsely reported to the Port Authority’s Office of Inspector General that plaintiffs had underreported their revenues and therefore were paying less rent than was owed:
Civil Rights Law § 76-a(1) provides, in relevant part:
“(a) An action involving public petition and participation’ is an action, claim, cross claim or counterclaim for damages that is brought by a public applicant or permittee, and is materially related to any efforts of the defendant to report on, comment on, rule on, challenge or oppose such application or permission.
“(b) Public applicant or permittee’ shall mean any person who has applied for or obtained a permit, zoning change, lease, license, certificate or other entitlement for use or permission to act from any government body, or any person with an interest, connection or affiliation with such person that is materially related to such application or permission.”
Here, the plaintiffs are “public permittees” within the meaning of the statute, since that term encompasses those who have obtained a lease from a government body, and the plaintiffs have obtained concessionary leases from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (hereinafter the Port Authority). Moreover, those causes of action specifically asserted against Petrucci in the complaint are “materially related” to her efforts to report on those leases, since they are premised upon her statements to the Port Authority’s Office of the Inspector General (hereinafter the OIG) regarding whether the plaintiffs, inter alia, intentionally underreported their revenues and thus paid less rent than was owed under the leases. Inasmuch as the complaint alleges that Petrucci affirmatively instigated the subject investigations by the OIG in a calculated attempt to undermine the plaintiffs’ leases with the Port Authority, and that she made her statements directly to the governing body responsible for the leases …, Petrucci demonstrated her prima facie entitlement to judgment as a matter of law determining that this action is a SLAPP suit, and the plaintiffs failed to raise a triable issue of fact in opposition. Accordingly, this action is properly characterized as a SLAPP suit … .
However, Petrucci was not entitled to summary judgment dismissing those causes of action specifically asserted against her in the complaint, or on her counterclaim pursuant to Civil Rights Law § 70-a. While we share the dissent’s concern for safeguarding the rights of citizens to comment on matters of public concern, and we acknowledge that “Civil Rights Law § 76-a was enacted to provide special protection for defendants in actions arising from the exercise of their rights of public petition and participation by deterring SLAPP actions” … , we conclude that the plaintiffs sustained their statutory burdens in opposition to the motion by demonstrating that the action “has a substantial basis in fact and law” (CPLR 3212[h]…). International Shoppes, Inc. v At the Airport, LLC, 2015 NY Slip Op 06710, 2nd Dept 9-2-15