Residents hit back against SMOC suit

Residents hit back against SMOC suit
US court filings say agency would stifle free speech
Thursday, January 3, 2008
Erica Noonan Globe West
Several Framingham residents charged in a federal civil rights lawsuit brought by the South Middlesex Opportunity Council last fall have filed special motions to dismiss the charges.

A group of defendants, including Town Meeting members Cynthia Laurora, Laurie Lee, and Steve Orr, filed affidavits in response to the lawsuit last week in US District Court in Boston.

They seek protection under a state law prohibiting so-called SLAPP - or Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation - lawsuits, which are filed to retaliate against citizens speaking up against controversial developments.  In its lawsuit, the South Middlesex Opportunity Council contends Framingham officials and residents fostered a conspiracy to discriminate against its clients, primarily poor and disabled people, by creating a hostile local political atmosphere and unfairly denying building permits for shelters and treatment centers.

The affidavits from the residents seeking protection under the state ban ask that SMOC's claims against them as individuals be dismissed immediately, and that the court require SMOC to pay any legal fees they incurred in filing the motions.

Massachusetts passed anti-SLAPP statutes in 1994 to combat lawsuits "brought primarily to chill the valid exercise of constitutional rights of freedom of speech" and to petition the government, according to legal analysts.

Like anti-SLAPP statutes adopted elsewhere, the Massachusetts law has been most commonly used to protect homeowners objecting to land development projects, local attorneys say.

Lee and Orr both declined to comment on the recent filings, but their affidavits defend their actions as appropriate for townspeople engaged in local politics, and contend it is actually the social-services agency that is violating their civil rights.

The anti-SLAPP statutes "were enacted precisely to protect citizens from lawsuits like this one," Lee's lawyer, Valerie McCormack, wrote in the motion.

Robert Snider, a Framingham lawyer and Town Meeting member who is not involved in the case, said the SMOC lawsuit represents a classicexample of what the law was created to block.  "I think it is an appropriate argument that needed to be made," he said.

Snider was among the Town Meeting members who recently approved setting aside $150,000 for legal fees to help townspeople fighting the council's suit.  More than 15 people were named in SMOC's complaint, including Town Administrator Julian Suso; the town's human service coordinator, Alexis Silver; and three members of the Board of Selectmen, Ginger Esty, Dennis Giombetti, and Jason Smith.

The town and SMOC officials have agreed to a series of private negotiating sessions, led by federal mediator Charles Swartwood III, starting next Wednesday.

The recent motions are separate and are not expected to affect the mediation sessions, according to an SMOC lawyer, Howard Cooper.

"There is nothing surprising at all with the motions to dismiss, and they are motions we fully expect to deal with in court," he said.

But Cooper said he did not believe the state law could trump a federal suit over violations of fair housing and other protections.

"This is a case about the plaintiffs' alleged violations of federal rehabilitation and federal civil rights laws," he said.  "It has nothing to do with free-speech issues."

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