Godin v. Schencks

CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (1st Circuit)
Citation629 F.3d 79
Docket NumberNo. 09-2324,09-2324
PartiesPat GODIN, Plaintiff, Appellee, v. Patty SCHENCKS, Joleen Nicely, and Donna Metta, Defendants, Appellants, School Union # 134 and Machiasport School Department Board of Directors, Defendants.
Decision Date22 December 2010

John B. Lucy, with whom Richardson Whitman Large & Badger was on brief, for appellant Joleen Nicely.

John M.R. Paterson, Eben Albert-Knopp, and Bernstein Shur on brief for appellant Patty Schencks.

David A. Strock and Fisher & Phillips, LLP on brief for appellant Donna Metta.

Sandra Hylander Collier for appellee.

Before LYNCH, Chief Judge, TORRUELLA and HOWARD, Circuit Judges.

LYNCH, Chief Judge.

Pat Godin, the former principal of the Fort O'Brien Elementary School in Machiasport, Maine, brought suit against the Machiasport School Department Board of Directors ("Machiasport") and School Union No. 134 in March 2009, alleging a violation of her due process rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. She also sued three individual school system employees who had separately stated in meetings withofficials their views that Godin had acted abusively toward students at the school. Plaintiff brought state-law claims that these allegations were defamatory and led the school system to terminate her employment; the school system says her job was terminated due to budgetary shortfalls.

Many states have enacted special statutory protections for individuals, like the individual school system employees in this case, named as defendants as a result of the exercise of their constitutional rights to petition the government. These anti-"SLAPP" ("strategic litigation against public participation") laws provide such defendants with procedural and substantive defenses meant to prevent meritless suits from imposing significant litigation costs and chilling protected speech. The two federal appellate courts that have addressed whether they must enforce these state anti-SLAPP statutes in federal proceedings have concluded that they must. See Henry v. Lake Charles Am. Press, LLC, 566 F.3d 164 (5th Cir.2009); United States ex rel. Newsham v. Lockheed Missiles & Space Co., 190 F.3d 963 (9th Cir.1999). See also Metabolife Int'l, Inc. v. Wornick, 264 F.3d 832, 845-47 (9th Cir.2001) (limiting application of one anti-SLAPP provision where information was within exclusive control of the defendant). This question, here as it applies to Maine's anti-SLAPP statute, is one of first impression for this court, and lies at the center of this appeal. We hold the Maine anti-SLAPP statute must be applied.

I.

Basic background facts set the stage. Shortly after Godin began working as a teacher and principal at the Fort O'Brien Elementary School in August 2006, Machiasport began receiving complaints from other employees concerning her conduct toward students, including complaints from the three individual defendants, Patty Schencks, Joleen Nicely, and Donna Metta.1 Machiasport conducted an investigation of Godin's conduct in May 2008. The June 4, 2008 investigation report concluded that the allegations that Godin's conduct was abusive and inappropriate were not supported.

Two days after the report was issued, Godin received notice from the Superintendent of Machiasport Schools that her employment contract, which would have expired in 2011, was being terminated due to budgetary constraints caused by "significant subsidy loss." Godin was told that her position would be filled by a "teaching principal," which occurred on August 12, 2008.

On March 2, 2009, Godin brought suit in federal court, asserting a federal claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the Union and Machiasport, and a number of state claims, including claims against the individual defendants for interference with advantageous contractual relationships and defamation. 2

The individual defendants filed a special motion to dismiss under Maine's anti-SLAPP statute, which creates a special process by which a defendant may move to dismiss any claim that arises from the defendant's exercise of the right of petition under either the United States Constitution or the Constitution of Maine.3 Me.Rev.Stat. tit. 14, § 556 (" Section 556"). Godin does not dispute that her claims against the individual defendants are based on conduct that falls within the statute's broad definition of "a party's exercise of its right of petition." Me.Rev.Stat. tit. 14, § 556.

The statute provides that once a defendant brings such a "special motion to dismiss" and demonstrates that the claims in question are based on the defendant's petitioning activity, the court "shall advance [the motion] so that it may be heard and determined with as little delay as possible." Id. The court shall grant the special motion "unless the party against whom the special motion is made shows that the moving party's exercise of its right of petition was devoid of any reasonable factual support or any arguable basis in law and that the moving party's acts caused actual injury to the responding party." Id. In assessing whether to grant the special motion, "the court shall consider the pleading and supporting and opposing affidavits stating the facts upon which the liability or defense is based." Id. A court may order discovery specific to the Section 556 motion for good cause shown. Id. Evidence considered in reviewing a special motion to dismiss should be viewed "in the light most favorable to the moving party because the responding party bears the burden of proof when the statute applies." Morse Bros., Inc. v. Webster, 772 A.2d 842, 849 (Me.2001).

The district court denied the individual defendants' special motion under Section 556, holding that Section 556 conflicts with Fed.R.Civ.P. 12 and 56 and so does not apply in federal court.

This interlocutory appeal raises issues of first impression within this circuit, namely: (1) whether, under the collateral order doctrine, this court has appellate jurisdiction over an interlocutory appeal from an order denying a special motion to dismiss brought under Section 556 on the basis that Section 556 cannot be reconciled with federal procedure; and (2) whether Section 556 applies in federal court proceedings. We hold on the facts here that we have appellate jurisdiction and that the district court erred in not applying Maine's anti-SLAPP statute, Me.Rev.Stat. tit. 14, § 556. We reverse and remand for further proceedings, including proceedings under Section 556.

II.

We address two preliminary jurisdictional issues: (1) whether federal subject-matter jurisdiction exists over the state-law claims against the non-diverse individual defendants even though no federal claim has been brought against them, and (2) whether this court has appellate jurisdiction over the individual defendants' interlocutory appeal by virtue of the collateral order doctrine.

A. Federal Subject-Matter Jurisdiction: The Supplemental Jurisdiction Doctrine

Although the parties have not questioned subject-matter jurisdiction over the claims at issue, "a court has an obligation to inquire sua sponte into its subject matter jurisdiction, and to proceed no further if such jurisdiction is wanting." In re Recticel Foam Corp., 859 F.2d 1000, 1002 (1st Cir.1988).

In her complaint, Godin asserts federal question jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1343 et seq. as to the claims against the school system, and that there exists a common nucleus of operative facts between the state claims and her federal claims sufficient to establish supplemental jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1367.

With certain exceptions not applicable here, a federal court may exercise supplemental jurisdiction over state-law claims "that are so related to claims in the action within [a court's] original jurisdiction that they form part of the same case or controversy under Article III of the United States Constitution." 4 28 U.S.C. § 1367(a). While it might be questioned whether Godin's state-law claims that her job termination was caused by defamatory comments from the individual defendants arise out of the same transaction as her federal claim that the schools did not afford due process in reaching the termination decision, that is not the test. See Global NAPs, Inc. v. Verizon New England Inc., 603 F.3d 71, 88 (1st Cir.2010) ("No Supreme Court case had ever established the same transaction-or-occurrence test as the boundary of Article III case-or-controversy requirement." (citing United Mine Workers of America v. Gibbs, 383 U.S. 715, 725, 86 S.Ct. 1130, 16 L.Ed.2d 218 (1966))). We conclude it would not offend the Constitution to assert supplemental jurisdiction over Godin's state-law claims.5 Accordingly, supplemental jurisdiction exists over Godin's state-law claims under § 1367(a).

B. Appellate Jurisdiction: The Collateral Order Doctrine

Godin objects that we lack appellate jurisdiction, arguing that the order denying application of Section 556 does not meet the requirements of the collateral order doctrine. "The burden of establishing jurisdiction rests with the party who asserts its existence," here the three individual defendants. Campbell v. Gen. Dynamics Gov't Sys. Corp., 407 F.3d 546, 551 (1st Cir.2005).

The collateral order doctrine "allows courts to hear appeals from judgments that are not complete and final if they 'fall in that small class which finally determine claims of right separable from,and collateral to, rights asserted in the action, too important to be denied review and too independent of the cause itself to require that appellate consideration be deferred until the whole case is adjudicated.' " Nieves-Marquez v. Puerto Rico, 353 F.3d 108, 123 n. 13 (1st Cir.2003) (quoting Cohen v. Beneficial Indus. Loan Corp., 337 U.S. 541, 546, 69 S.Ct. 1221, 93 L.Ed. 1528 (1949)). For the collateral order doctrine to apply, the interlocutory order must present: (1) a conclusive decision, (2) distinct from the merits of the action, (3) on an important issue, (4) which would effectively...

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