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Flade v. City of Shelbyville

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  1. Libel and Privacy

Court: Tennessee Supreme Court

Date Filed: Oct. 10, 2023

Background: In 2021, a landlord sued the city of Shelbyville, Tennessee, an individual, and a nonprofit organization for defamation and related claims stemming from comments made about maintenance issues at one of the landlord’s properties.

The non-governmental defendants filed motions to dismiss the lawsuit under the Tennessee Public Participation Act, which is one of many state anti-SLAPP laws that allow courts to quickly dismiss meritless lawsuits intended to chill speech about matters of public interest, also known as strategic lawsuits against public participation, or SLAPPs.

Under the TPPA, which the state legislature passed in 2019, defendants may file a petition to dismiss a SLAPP at the earliest stage of the litigation, before substantial fees and costs are incurred by the parties, and judicial resources wasted. The TPPA also mandates an award of costs and attorney’s fees to a prevailing defendant, a provision that enables journalists and others to exercise their First Amendment rights without fear that doing so will come at a significant financial cost, aid defendants in securing adequate legal representation, and disincentivize plaintiffs from filing SLAPPs in the first place.

Because fee-award and sanctions provisions like the TPPA’s play such a vital role in combating spurious SLAPP litigation, courts around the country have held that fee-award provisions in their respective anti-SLAPP laws are applicable when a plaintiff, faced with a pending anti-SLAPP motion or petition to dismiss, voluntarily drops the lawsuit.

That’s not what happened in this case. A week before a hearing on the non-governmental plaintiffs’ motions to dismiss the lawsuit under the TPPA, the plaintiff filed a notice of voluntary nonsuit, meaning he chose to dismiss his own suit, but with the option of later re-filing. The defendants filed a notice to proceed with the hearing.

The plaintiff argued that because of his decision not to proceed, the court no longer had jurisdiction to decide the petition or award fees. The trial court agreed, and the Tennessee Court of Appeals affirmed. The defendants then appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court, which has not yet had an opportunity to consider a case interpreting the TPPA.

Our Position: The Tennessee Supreme Court should reverse the Court of Appeals and hold that the TPPA’s mandatory fee-award provision for a prevailing defendant, as well as its allowance for the impositions of sanctions, apply when a plaintiff voluntarily dismisses while an anti-SLAPP petition is pending. To hold otherwise would create an end-run around the statute and incentivize plaintiffs to file meritless suits without fear of the consequences the TPPA was enacted to impose.

  • The TPPA was enacted to combat meritless litigation that chills the exercise of First Amendment rights, and its fee-award provision is vital to that purpose.
  • For the TPPA to fulfill its statutory purpose, its fee-award provision must apply when a plaintiff voluntarily decides not to move forward with a SLAPP lawsuit while an anti-SLAPP petition is pending.
  • The trial court’s ruling below, if affirmed, would undermine the TPPA’s effectiveness to the detriment of members of the news media and the public that relies on their reporting.

Quote: “Without the full protections of laws like the TPPA, journalists and news organizations may avoid reporting important stories out of fear of being hit with a financially burdensome or even ruinous SLAPP.”

Related: The Reporters Committee has filed many friend-of-the-court briefs urging courts across the country to uphold the protections offered in state anti-SLAPP laws, including recently in Zeitlin v. Cohan, Palin v. The New York Times Company, and Stabosz v. Friedman. To learn more about the anti-SLAPP law in your state, check out the Reporters Committee’s Anti-SLAPP Legal Guide.

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