A Genesee County Circuit Court judge today dismissed a lawsuit against a group of community activists in Burton, calling it “frivolous”. The suit, brought against the so-called “Burton Moms”, alleged that the activists, who opposed rezoning a section of their neighborhood to allow for a concrete crushing plant, had defamed proponents of the plan at public hearings on the issue.
In dismissing the case, Hon. Geoffrey Neithercut said that the transcripts of the hearings contained no evidence of defamatory statements. Neithercut called the lawsuit “frivolous” and said he believed the plaintiffs—including local corporations Cernet, LLC and Zito Construction, along with company owner John Zito and Neil Martz (a Construction Manager at the Genesee County Drain Commission)—had filed the suit to “punish” the Burton Moms for exercising their First Amendment rights. He also imposed sanctions on the plaintiffs for bringing an improper lawsuit, ordering them to pay the Burton Moms’ legal bills. A hearing on the exact amount of those bills is scheduled for November 17, 2008.
Steven Shelton, the attorney for four of the Burton Moms, told the court justice required sanctions be imposed on the plaintiffs. Even if the case was dismissed, the plaintiffs would have accomplished their goal of punishing and intimidating the Burton Moms unless sanctions were imposed because they would still have to pay thousands of dollars in legal bills.
“I have a friend who has been practicing law for a very long time, who once told me justice is for those who can afford it,” Shelton said. “But when I say the Pledge of Allegiance, I don’t pledge allegiance to a country that has justice for those who can afford it. I pledge allegiance to a country that has justice for all.”
In his motion to dismiss the suit, Shelton noted that all of the alleged defamatory statements were made at public hearings and were recorded. None of the statements alleged appeared in the recordings, and the plaintiffs never actually expected to win their lawsuit, he said. “Their goal was to cause the Burton Moms to incur costs and expenses (including attorney fees) to punish, harass, and intimidate them,” he wrote, calling it a “textbook example” of a “SLAPP suit”.
A SLAPP (“Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation”) suit is a frivolous lawsuit brought for the sole purpose of punishing people for exercising their Constitutional rights. At least 25 states have statutory protections against SLAPP suits. Michigan is not among them.
Steven Shelton is an attorney in private practice in Fenton, Michigan. Initial consultations are always free. To schedule an appointment, contact attorney Steven Shelton on-line or by telephone at 810-750-1420.