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Blanchard v. Steward Carney Hospital, Inc.

Superior Court of Massachusetts, Suffolk

December 7, 2017

Lynne BLANCHARD et al.[1]
v.
STEWARD CARNEY HOSPITAL, INC. et al.[2]

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER ON DEFENDANTS’ SPECIAL MOTION TO DISMISS PURSUANT TO G.L.C. 231, § 59H UPON REMAND FROM THE SUPREME JUDICIAL COURT

          Joseph F. Leighton, Jr., Associate Justice

         This case is before the court on remand from the Supreme Judicial Court for a determination of whether the plaintiffs’ defamation claim against the defendants is a legitimate law suit filed to recover damages for harm suffered as a result of allegedly tortious conduct or a so-called SLAPP suit designed to chill the defendants’ legitimate petitioning activity. The SJC recently reviewed a decision of this Court (Giles, J.) denying defendants’ Special Motion to Dismiss the claims at issue pursuant to G.L.c, 211, § 59H, the Massachusetts anti-SLAPP Statute (the " Statute"). See Blanchard v. Steward Carney Hosp., 477 Mass. 141 (2017). In a holding relevant to the instant motion. the SJC established a new framework for the resolution of Special Motions to Dismiss under the Statute and remanded part of the motion for consideration under that framework. Applying the new standard to the totality of the circumstances in the record before the court, I find that the plaintiffs have met their burden to establish that their defamation claim is not a SLAPP suit because it was filed primarily to seek redress for the harm alleged, not to interfere with the defendants’ right to petition. For this reason, as explained below, the defendants" motion is DENIED.

         BACKGROUND

         The following facts are drawn from the Record Appendix originally filed in the Appeals Court and cited by both parties in their memoranda pertaining to the instant motion on remand.

         The plaintiffs are registered nurses who formerly worked in the Adolescent Mental Health Unit (the " Unit") at Steward Carney Hospital (" Steward Carney" or the " Hospital"). In April of 2011, incidents of suspected patient abuse on the Unit were reported to the Department of Mental Health (" DMH"), Department of Public Health (" DPH"), and the Department of Children and Families (" DCF"). The DMF and DCF investigated the reports and the DMH stopped admissions to the Unit and ordered some patients to be removed in order to decrease the census. DMH also indicated that it was considering revoking the Hospital’s license to operate the Unit.

         The Hospital retained former Massachusetts Attorney General, Scott Harshbarger (" Harshbarger"), to investigate the incidents and make recommendations as to how Steward Carney should handle the situation. As part of his investigation, Harshbarger interviewed Hospital staff who had contact with the Unit, including the plaintiffs. In May of 2011, in written Preliminary Findings, and orally, he recommended that the Hospital " blow up" the Unit and " start anew." Based on that recommendation, the Hospital fired all mental health counselors and nurses assigned to the Unit, including the plaintiffs, effective May 26, 2011.

         Following the terminations, William Walczak (" Walczak"), the hospital CEO, sent an email to all hospital staff to inform them about the actions taken. He also responded to media inquiries about the terminations.

         The plaintiffs are members of the Massachusetts Nurses Association (the " MNA"), who grieved their terminations under the applicable collective bargaining agreement. The grievances ended up in arbitration. Two separate sessions were scheduled with five of the plaintiffs participating in the first session and four scheduled to participate in the second. In March 2013, after the first session hearings were complete, but before any decision was entered, the parties engaged in settlement negotiations but did not settle. On April 20, 2013, the arbitrator found in favor of the MNA and directed the Hospital to reinstate the nurses to their prior jobs on the Unit with back pay and benefits.

         On May 25, 2013, the plaintiffs filed the instant suit alleging, among other claims, defamation based upon Walczak’s in-house email to the staff of the Hospital described above and his remarks, which were included in two Boston Globe articles.

         On October 8, 2013, all nine plaintiffs, the MNA and the Hospital settled the grievances. Under the settlement the plaintiffs received back-pay and benefits from the date of their termination through August 15, 2013. They also received money in lieu of reinstatement. As a result of the settlement, the second arbitration never occurred.

         After being served with the complaint in the instant matter, the Hospital brought an anti-SLAPP Special Motion to Dismiss the defamation claims, arguing that the email and the published remarks were both petitioning activity related to the re-licensure of the Unit by the state. The motion was denied by this court (Giles, J.) on March 5, 2014 and the Hospital appealed.

         The Appeals Court reversed this court’s decision in part. See Blanchard v. Steward Carney Hosp., Inc., 89 Mass.App.Ct. 97, 98 (2016). Thereafter, the Supreme Judicial Court granted the parties’ applications for further appellate review and held that Walczak’s statements to the Boston Globe were petitioning activity covered by the Statute, but that the internal Hospital email was not an exercise of the Hospital’s right to petition and, thus, was not subject to anti-SLAPP protection. The Court then announced a new augmented framework for the analysis of Special Motions to Dismiss, under which the non-moving party may prevail if it can establish that its claim was not brought primarily to chill the moving party’s legitimate petitioning activity. The Court remanded the case for consideration of the Hospital’s motion and plaintiffs’ opposition under the augmented framework.

         ANALYSIS

         The anti-SLAPP statute, G.L.c. 231, § 59H, " was enacted by the Legislature to provide a quick remedy for those citizens targeted by frivolous lawsuits based on their government petitioning activities." Kobrin v. Gastfriend, 443 Mass. 327, 331 (2005). In Kobrin, the Supreme Judicial Court noted that the anti-SLAPP statute " had its genesis as a legislative attempt to protect private citizens when exercising their constitutional right to speak out against development projects or other matters of concern to them and their communities and to seek government relief." Kobrin, 443 Mass. at 337. The SJC has also noted that " SLAPP suits [are] generally meritless suits brought by large private interests to deter common citizens from exercising their political or legal rights or to punish them from doing so." Duracraft v. Holmes Prods. Corp., 427 Mass. 156, 161 (1998). The Court has also recognized that the language of the statute supports its application to cases ...


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