Wiggin and Dana Secures Dismissal of Defamation Suit under New “Anti-SLAPP” Law
Representing the Boy Scouts of America, The Lebanon Lions Club, and several affiliated individuals, Wiggin and Dana recently secured dismissal of a defamation suit under Connecticut’s new “anti-SLAPP” law. Connecticut became the 28th state to adopt an anti-SLAPP law, when General Statutes 52-196a went into effect last year. The statute provides defendants with an expedited means of seeking dismissal of lawsuits that target parties for exercising their rights to free speech, free association, and to petition the government in connection with a matter of public concern.
In Day v. Dodge, the plaintiffs, the mother and father of a Cub Scout member, sued several individuals and organizations associated with Cub Scout Pack 58 of Lebanon, Connecticut, alleging that they had falsely accused the father of engaging in sexual misconduct with his son during a Cub Scout campout. As alleged in the complaint, a mother of another child claimed to have heard disturbing sounds coming from the plaintiffs’ tent and reported it to other Pack leaders, who called the police. An investigation ensued, but the father was never charged with misconduct. The plaintiffs brought claims for defamation, invasion of privacy, negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress, and violation of their due process rights. Representing the defendants, Wiggin and Dana partner Tadhg Dooley, along with associate Ben Cheney, filed a special motion to dismiss under the new anti-SLAPP law, arguing that all of the claims were “based on” the defendants exercise of their rights to petition the government and free association in connection with a matter of public concern, namely suspected child abuse. Further, Wiggin and Dana argued that the defendants were entitled to immunity under the mandated reporter statute, which immunizes individuals who make good-faith reports of suspected child abuse. Because the plaintiffs could not ultimately show that any defendants acted in bad faith, Wiggin and Dana argued that the lawsuit should be dismissed immediately, rather that after prolonged discovery and trial.
In a decision released January 25, the Superior Court agreed granting the defendants’ motion to dismiss in full and finding that the defendants were entitled to reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs. In a thoughtful decision, Judge Kimberly Knox rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that the anti-SLAPP law should not apply because such laws are typically aimed at protecting media defendants from vexatious litigation. Based on the plain language of the statute, Judge Knox agreed that each of the plaintiffs’ claims was “based on” either the exercise of the right to petition or free association in connection with a matter of public concern. She agreed further that, in the absence of any evidence that the defendants acted in bad faith, they were entitled to immunity and that the lawsuit must therefore be dismissed.
The decision is one of the first to interpret the new law in detail and will be useful to defendants facing defamation and related claims in connection with matters of public concern, both within and outside the media context.
Tadhg Dooley is a partner in the firm’s Litigation Department, where his practice focuses on appellate and complex litigation. He has extensive experience handling appeals in state and federal courts throughout the country, and has successfully represented clients confronting a variety of legal challenges, including defamation and libel suits, consumer class actions, and lawsuits concerning institutional responses to sexual abuse.
Ben Cheney is an Associate in Wiggin and Dana’s Litigation Department, where he is an integral part of the firm’s Medical Malpractice Defense Group. He handles all aspects of civil litigation, focusing primarily on the representation of hospitals, physicians, and health care providers in complex cases alleging professional negligence, including wrongful death and a variety of other claims of catastrophic injuries.