by Paul Alan Levy
When Keep Pushing, a St. Louis community organization devoted to protecting the unhoused, went door-to-door to speak to tenants facing eviction orders and hand out a flyer about their rights under the CDC eviction moratorium, one of the landlords whose tenants were visited, Norwood 2020, was desperate to suppress this potential threat to its bottom line. Its tactic, however – a nine-count count complaint seeking damages an injunctive relief, followed by a demand for expedited discovery – is a textbook SLAPP suit.
As lawyers for Legal Services of Eastern Missouri explain in a motion to dismiss filed yesterday, not a single one of the state law claims can succeed on its own merit, indeed some of them are borderline frivolous, even apart from the fact that imposing damages or injunctive relief would be violate the First Amendment. Moreover, most of the claims rest on the theory that, in talking to a tenant who had presumably moved into an apartment after Norwood 2020 obtained the eviction order (and how did Norwood 2020 manage to empty the apartment without violating the local eviction moratorium)? Keep Pushing had spoken in error because that tenant was not facing eviction. So the landlord claims include infliction of emotional distress, invasion of privacy, and deceptive merchandising (the free leaflet being the merchandise, apparently). Norwood 2020 has yet to explain how a corporate landlord can suffer emotional distress or invasion of privacy, or why it has standing to pursue such tort claims on behalf of its tenants. Its counsel has not responded to a request for comment.
The motions to dismiss and to take early discovery are set for June 2 in the Circuit Court for St. Louis County.
The litigation, for me, exposes the serious limitations of Missouri’s already narrow anti-SLAPP law, which applies only to damages actions filed over speech in connection with a public hearing or public meeting. The local courts have defined “public hearings” as involving only executive or legislative hearings, but not judicial hearings, so even the Keep Pushing is disseminating literature about judicial eviction proceedings it could not claim protection of the anti-SLAPP law.
Luckily, Keep Pushing was able to secure representation by legal services (which sought help from Public Citizen in opposing the complaint). But the Missouri legislature should consider expanding the scope of the state SLAPP law’s protections.