Stop the Presses: Trespass Is Not a Petitioning Activity

Massachusetts has an “anti-SLAPP” statute (as do 26 other states at this point, apparently). The law protects “petitioning”, by precluding litigation targeting petitioning, providing an early motion to dismiss, and awarding attorneys’ fees to defendants where a court finds that the defendants were indeed engaged in petitioning activity.

Yesterday, the Massachusetts Appeals Court struck a blow for reason when it determined, in Brice Estates v. Smith, that a trespass is not protected petitioning activity. Those of you outside Massachusetts may be wondering why we needed a court case to tell us this. Those of you inside Massachusetts, particularly in the development community, know where this is headed.

Brice Estates involved a real estate developer, looking to build a large residential subdivision. Low and behold an abutter observed a four-toed salamander – a species protected under the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act. Of course, the developer shouldn’t have been surprised, because developers of projects with significant opposition often learn of mysterious discoveries of endangered species at the project location.

The only aspect of this case that was different was that a specifically identified person was known to have gone onto the developer’s property – thus providing the basis for a trespass claim. The Court of Appeals made clear that, while notifying the authorities of the presence of the salamander was protected petitioning activity, the trespass itself was not. Moreover, the court also made clear that, even if the reason why the owner filed suit was the protected petitioning activity, the owner may still bring the action with respect to the non-protected activity.

Time will tell whether the lesson to NIMBY types is “no shenanigans” or “don’t get caught.”

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