Nyberg v. Wheltle, 21-P-791

CourtAppeals Court of Massachusetts
Writing for the CourtNEYMAN, J.
PartiesJONATHAN NYBERG & another[1] v. R. BRUCE WHELTLE & another.[2]
Docket Number21-P-791
Decision Date13 September 2022

JONATHAN NYBERG & another[1]
v.

R. BRUCE WHELTLE & another.
[2]

No. 21-P-791

Appeals Court of Massachusetts, Middlesex

September 13, 2022


Heard: March 17, 2022.

"Anti-SLAPP" Statute. Constitutional Law, Right to petition government. Practice, Civil, Motion to dismiss. Abuse of Process. Civil action commenced in the Superior Court Department on January 21, 2021.

A special motion to dismiss was heard by Christopher K. Barry-Smith, J.

Robert E. McLaughlin, Sr. (John G. Hofmann also present) for the plaintiffs.

Jeffrey J. Pyle for the defendants.

Present: Neyman, Shin, & Hand, JJ.

NEYMAN, J.

This case involves yet another example of the "ever-increasing complexity of the anti-SLAPP case law," and the

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"difficult and time consuming" resolution of special motions to dismiss pursuant to the "anti-SLAPP" statute, G. L. c. 231, § 59H. Commonwealth v. Exxon Mobil Corp., 489 Mass. 724, 728 n.5 (2022). Here, we are asked to review a Superior Court judge's application of the augmented anti-SLAPP framework crafted in Blanchard v. Steward Carney Hosp., Inc., 477 Mass. 141 (2017) (Blanchard I), and amplified in Blanchard v. Steward Carney Hosp., Inc., 483 Mass. 200 (2019) (Blanchard II). The plaintiffs, Jonathan Nyberg and Sara Dolan (collectively, Nybergs), contend that the judge erred in concluding that the Nybergs' lawsuit for abuse of process and intentional infliction of emotional distress against the defendants, R. Bruce Wheltle and Susan Wheltle (collectively, Wheltles), was a retaliatory strategic lawsuit against public participation (SLAPP suit), and in allowing the Wheltles' special motion to dismiss. Although we have some concerns with the allowance of the special motion to dismiss under the contested facts detailed herein, we cannot say that the judge erred or abused his discretion, see Blanchard I, supra at 160, in allowing the special motion to dismiss where he sedulously followed the augmented framework, made the step-by-step determinations required by Massachusetts precedent, and considered and weighed the requisite Blanchard II, supra at 206-207, factors before rendering his conclusion. Accordingly, we affirm.

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Background.

"We summarize the relevant facts from the pleadings and affidavits that were before the motion judge." 477 Harrison Ave., LLC v. JACE Boston, LLC, 477 Mass. 162, 164 (2017) (Harrison I). See G. L. c. 231, § 59H (in ruling on special motion to dismiss, "the court shall consider the pleadings and supporting and opposing affidavits stating the facts upon which the liability or defense is based").

1. The parties.

The Nybergs are brother and sister and were engaged in the real estate development business. In 2015, they acquired an undeveloped lot at 88 Coolidge Road in Arlington (Nyberg lot). The Arlington zoning bylaws require that a buildable lot for a single-family home in the Coolidge Road section of Arlington have lot frontage of at least sixty feet and lot size of at least 6,000 square feet. At the time the Nybergs acquired the Nyberg lot, it had exactly sixty feet of frontage on Coolidge Road and the lot size was 6, 035 square feet.

The Wheltles are husband and wife and have resided at 94 Coolidge Road in Arlington from 1971 to the present. The Wheltle property abuts the Nyberg lot. As discussed below, the Wheltles opposed the proposed development of the Nyberg lot.

2. Initial dispute and Land Court action.

The Nybergs intended to construct a single-family house on the Nyberg lot. However, they needed permission from the Arlington conservation

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commission because the Nyberg lot is located near a wetland. Thus, the Nybergs filed a notice of intent and sought an order of conditions establishing terms to protect the environment. The Wheltles and other neighbors opposed the Nybergs' request for the order of conditions, and according to the Nybergs, "the Wheltles pressed each and every objection to the Nybergs' buildable plans imaginable" throughout the approval process. On September 7, 2017, the Arlington conservation commission approved the Nybergs' application to build a single-family home on the Nyberg lot and issued an order of conditions.[3]

On October 27, 2017, the Wheltles filed a complaint in the Land Court, which included a claim for declaratory judgment, an action to quiet title, and a claim for adverse possession of portions of the Nyberg lot. The Land Court complaint alleged, inter alia, that the Wheltles had "acquired title by adverse possession to several disputed slivers of land adjacent to their" property. The Land Court complaint alleged that a brick wall "encroached .52 feet onto the [Nyberg lot]" and that the Wheltles "owned the land under the Brick Wall [by adverse

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possession,] thereby reducing the Nybergs' frontage to approximately [fifty-nine feet and six inches] and rendering the [Nyberg lot] no longer in compliance with the Arlington zoning building code requirement of a minimum of [sixty] feet of frontage." In addition, the Land Court complaint alleged that a "Boulder Wall encroached [seventy] square feet onto the [Nyberg lot]" and that the Wheltles "owned the land under the Boulder Wall [by adverse possession,] thereby reducing the Nybergs' total square footage to approximately 5, 965 square feet and rendering the [Nyberg lot] no longer in compliance with the Arlington zoning building code requirement of a minimum of 6,000 square feet."[4]

Following a three-day bench trial, a Land Court judge concluded that the Wheltles had proved adverse possession as to "an area of encroachment of approximately 9.9 square feet," but had "failed to establish rights by adverse possession with respect to the other [claimed] encroachments." Although the Wheltles prevailed in part at trial, the result did not render the Nyberg lot unbuildable as it still contained sixty feet of

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frontage and more than 6,000 square feet. Judgment in the Land Court action entered on August 5, 2020. Neither party appealed from the Land Court judgment.

3. The present action.

On January 21, 2021, approximately five and one-half months after judgment entered in the Land Court action, the Nybergs commenced the present action in the Superior Court (present action) against the Wheltles alleging abuse of process and intentional infliction of emotional distress, and seeking damages including the costs of defending the Land Court action, the carrying costs of the Nyberg lot, and the diminution in value of their investment. In their complaint, the Nybergs contended, inter alia, that the Wheltles did not bring the Land Court complaint for the purpose of acquiring seventy square feet of the Nyberg lot. Instead, the Nybergs asserted that the Wheltles used legal process "intentionally and maliciously for the ulterior illegal purpose of preventing the Nybergs from pursuing their legitimate right to build a single-family house on the property they had acquired," because the Nybergs' proposed development would "depriv[e] the Wheltles of the view of the undeveloped lot and natural vegetation existing thereon and the privacy afforded to them by the undeveloped lot along the northern border of their property."

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The Nybergs alleged that evidence of the Wheltles' ulterior purpose included the following: on December 6, 2017, at the conclusion of a Department of Environmental Protection site visit to the Nyberg lot, counsel for the Wheltles asked Jonathan Nyberg if he and his sister would be willing to sell their lot to her clients. The Wheltles' offer was much less than what the Nybergs had paid for the Nyberg lot, and thus the parties did not reach agreement. During this conversation, counsel for the Wheltles purportedly stated to Jonathan Nyberg, "My clients are prepared to go straight out on their adverse possession case in order to block the project."

The Nybergs further averred that the Wheltles "aggressively prosecuted" their adverse possession claims in the Land Court, "requiring the Nybergs to mount a rigorous and expensive defense." The Nybergs also alleged that "[t]he Wheltles knew or should have known they had no legal basis to claim title by adverse possession to" certain portions of the Nyberg lot. Finally, the Nybergs alleged that the Wheltles' acts, which were intended to render the Nyberg lot unbuildable, constituted "conduct that was extreme and outrageous" and caused "extreme emotional distress."

4. The special motion to dismiss.

In response to the Nyberg complaint, the Wheltles filed an answer and a special motion to dismiss under the anti-SLAPP statute, G. L. c. 231,

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§ 59H. Through their motion, affidavits, and pleadings, the Wheltles argued that the present action was based solely on the Wheltles' legitimate, and partially successful, petitioning activity. They maintained that they opposed the Nybergs' proposed development and brought the Land Court action because they believed that the development "would harm wetlands and natural resources, and . . . would place a new boundary wall reaching [ten] feet in height right against [their] property, in place of [their] existing retaining wall." The Wheltles and other residents attended the Arlington conservation commission hearings and spoke out against the Nybergs' proposed project, exercising their legal rights as abutters. R. Bruce Wheltle further averred that he and his wife spent a considerable sum of money to litigate the Land Court claims through trial, and that they "became economically unable to appeal from the adverse portions of the [Land Court judgment] or to maintain [their] appeal from the Arlington Conservation Commission's Bylaw decision." At the time they filed the special motion to dismiss, the Wheltles were seventy-nine and seventy-seven years old and retired. They claimed that during the Land Court proceedings, counsel for the Nybergs told counsel for the Wheltles that if the Nybergs prevailed in the Land Court action, they would...

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