On our website, we previously highlighted an NBC4 I-Team report that broke a story on an Irvington senior citizen who was sued by her own town for filing too many OPRA requests. The report is here. (Full disclosure: we were interviewed for the story and are quoted in it). The reaction to the story was very strong, and several other news outlets picked up on the story. Apparently, the initial story and additional coverage that followed generated sufficient pressure that Irvington agreed to dismiss the case and, based on our review of publicly available records, the case has been dismissed.
In our opinion, this case was a “strategic lawsuit against public participation” – a SLAPP suit. SLAPP suits are lawsuits that are filed by private or public entities against local citizens. These suits almost always arise in the context of significant political or policy disagreements between the entity and the local citizen. Like the suit here, SLAPP suits generally allege defamation, tortious interference with contract, malicious prosecution and abuse of process. Such lawsuits are generally expensive to defend, and plaintiffs generally structure them in such a fashion that minimizes the defendant’s ability to recover their attorneys fees if they prevail. The lawsuit is often filed in the unspoken hope that the local citizen will either shut up and go away, or defend the case pro se, without the assistance of an attorney.
The Irvington case highlights the need for an anti-SLAPP law in New Jersey, which currently does not have one. Such a law, in general, permits a defendant to file a motion early in the case that forces the plaintiff to produce evidence, and not just mere allegations, that there is a probability they will prevail in the lawsuit. Anti-SLAPP laws also generally provide for recovery of counsel fees for the prevailing defendant.
Nonetheless, we have successfully handled SLAPP suits, and have developed strategies to combat them, even in the absence of an anti-SLAPP statute.