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Court Filing: RI Mother Nicole Solas Demands “Compensatory and Punitive Damages” Against Teachers Unions Under Anti-SLAPP Statute

Court Filing: RI Mother Nicole Solas Demands “Compensatory and Punitive Damages” Against Teachers Unions Under Anti-SLAPP Statute

The unions sued over Solas’ public records requests, now she has filed her opposition: “This extraordinary case is brought by a party without standing, disregards the entire statutory scheme under the [public records law], and is an affront to Parents’ rights to open and transparent government under state law”

On Monday, August 23, 2021, the Rhode Island Superior Court will hear argument on the motion of the National Education Association Rhode Island and NEA South Kingstown for a Temporary Restraining Order preventing the South Kingstown School District and School Committee from releasing public records requested by Nicole Solas and her husband, Adam Hartman.

While Solas has been the center of attention, it is worth noting the unions sued her husband as well for some public records requests he filed.

Based on what we are currently told, the hearing will be remote only, but there will be a public audio link. We will post the link once it is available (and might even do “live” blogging of the hearing, tbd).

By now you probably know the background. On June 1, 2021, Solas went public at Legal Insurrection with her problems getting answers to questions about the Critical Race and Gender curricula her daughter might face upon entering kindergarten. Rather than get answers, she got the runaround and was told to submit public records requests. When she did that, the school district threatened to sue her, but eventually backed down.

Solas continued to pursue her public records requests, and the school district continued to respond, often with page-after-page of fully redacted documents. But then, the unions decided to sue the school district and committee, Solas, and Hartman. There’s a big problem with the lawsuit that we flagged early on — the unions have no standing to sue under clear Rhode Island law. That arguably renders the lawsuit frivolous and harassing for Solas and Hartman exercising their right to petition the government for redress and exercising their freedom of speech. If so, Solas and Hartman would be entitled not only to dismissal of the lawsuit, but compensatory and punitive damages under the Rhode Island anti-SLAPP statute.

We explored the claims and problems with the lawsuit in these prior posts:

In that last linked post, I noted:

I’m not making a prediction, but I am sounding a warning, that the lawsuit by two RI affiliates of the National Education Association against South Kingstown mother Nicole Solas may turn out to be a historic mistake, one that exposes the unions to punitive damage claims by Solas under the Rhode Island anti-SLAPP statute, as well as intrusive discovery as to union motivations.

The school district and committee filed their Answer to the Complaint, and deny the allegations that non-public records will be released, specifically denying these paragraphs from the Complaint:

45. Based 0n the scope of the requests concerning Savastano’s e-mails, upon information and belief, a response would call for communications between teachers who are NEA members and Savastano that are not public records or would otherwise not be subject t0 disclosure because disclosure would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.

65. It is anticipated that teacher records will be produced that will be of a personal nature and will contain the identities of the teachers engaged in the personal communication as well as other communications that relate to personnel issues, disciplinary issues, performance issues, medical issues and issues not related t0 the official business of the School Department.

66. It is further anticipated that teacher records Will be produced that may or will contain discussions about union-related activities which are not public records subj ect t0 disclosure.

The school district and committee also assert that the unions fail to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. (The district and committee response to the motion is not yet available on the court electronic docket.)

Solas and Hartman filed both a Response to the Motion and an Answer. I never predict court outcomes, but goodness, the Goldwater Institute, which represents Solas and Hartman, took the unions to the legal woodshed and beat the stuffing out of the lawsuit and request for an emergency injunction.

They hit all the key points, particularly lack of standing and the speculative nature of the union claims. Here is the Introduction, but by all means read the whole thing:

This lawsuit, apparently without precedent in Rhode Island, asks this Court to enj oin the statutory public records process and stop citizens from seeking public information in good faith about the operations of their government under public records statutes that were written for that purpose. This extraordinary case is brought by a party without standing, disregards the entire statutory scheme under the APRA, and is an affront to Parents’ rights to open and transparent government under state law.1

[fn. 1 — As will be set out in a Motion for Summary Judgment Which Will be filed subsequent to this Response, Parents are also immune from suit under Rhode Island’s anti—SLAPP statute, R.I. Gen. Laws § 9-33-1, et seq (“anti-SLAPP statute”).

Defendant Nicole Solas simply wanted t0 know What her kindergarten-age daughter would be taught. After she asked questions regarding classroom instruction 0f Defendants South Kingstown School Committee and Kingstown School Department (“School Committee”), School Committee personnel directed Nicole to file official records requests under the APRA instead. So, she did. In response, the School Committee obstructed her at every turn. First, they told her she needed to pay thousands of dollars for the information she requested. May 14, 2021 Letter attached as Exhibit 1. Then, after she narrowed her requests and paid certain fees demanded by the School Committee, the School Committee turned over hundreds of pages 0f entirely redacted documents. Records attached as Exhibit 22. Next, the School Committee then threatened to sue Nicole. June 2, 2021 School Committee Special Meeting Agenda attached as Exhibit 3.

Then Plaintiffs, part of one 0f the largest and wealthiest labor organizations in the country, then filed this legally baseless lawsuit against her.

An unbroken line of Rhode Island Supreme Court cases, dating back t0 1991, make it clear that Plaintiffs have no standing to challenge Nicole’s APRA requests to the School Committee. This case is also a prototypical “strategic lawsuit against public participation” (SLAPP) that seeks to prevent citizens from exercising their legal rights— in this case, accessing public information in good faith under laws adopted for that purpose. This case therefore violates the plain language of Rhode Island’s anti-SLAPP
statute. Additionally, Plaintiffs’ Complaint makes only speculative, unsubstantiated allegations 0f harm for which they have provided n0 factual basis. The evidence, in fact, shows that the School Committee has been aggressively applying the APRA and its exemptions to the requests made by Parents, often t0 the point of obstructionism. Finally, the balance of hardships tilts strongly in favor of Parents and other members of the public who have a right t0 seek public information about the operations 0f government and the education being offered t0 their children in the schools their tax dollars pay for.

In the Answer, Solas and Hartman denied the material allegations, and asserted lack of standing:

1. Deny, and affirmatively allege that this action is brought Without a legal and factual basis, as the Access to Public Records Act (APRA) does not authorize a “reverse- FOIA” case Where a stranger to the public records request seeks to prevent disclosure 0f public records.

2. Defendants Nicole Solas and Adam Hartman (“the Parents”) deny that this Court has jurisdiction. APRA does not authorize a third party to file a lawsuit seeking to prevent disclosure 0f government records. The Uniform Declaratory Judgments Act is procedural only, and does not confer substantive rights.

The anti-SLAPP statute also was invoked:

Affirmative Defense No. 7: Plaintiffs complaint violates Rhode Island’s anti-SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) statute, § 9-33-1 et seq.

Under Rhode Island law, a claim for anti-SLAPP damages needs to be made in the original proceeding, not in a later case, and Solas and Hartman demanded those damages in their request for relief (emphasis added):

WHEREFORE, Nicole Solas and Adam Hartman respectfufly request that the Court:
1. Dismiss the Complaint.
2. Award them their reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs, pursuant to § 9-33-2(d).
3. Award them compensatory and punitive damages pursuant to § 9-33—2(d).
4. Grant other such relief as the court deems just and proper.

So Solas and Hartman have preserved their claim for compensatory and punitive damages under the anti-SLAPP satute. Presumably Solas and Hartman, as this case moves forward to consideration of the anti-SLAPP damages, will seek document discovery and depositions of the unions to prove an intent to harass. That’s not something the court will have to address on Monday, though the other provisions of the anti-SLAPP statute putting an early halt to the union claims will be in issue.

 

 

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Comments

I live in Florida.
I’ve worked for the school district in the past, and I still maintain personal relationships with teachers and others from back then. I knew then, and I confirmed recently, just in case my memory could be failing me:

Everybody knows that you are not supposed to write ANYTHING personal or private in school emails, because EVERYTHING you put there is subject to public records requests.

Maybe it’s exaggeration, but that’s the way things work around here.

    Dathurtz in reply to Exiliado. | August 19, 2021 at 6:52 am

    Here, too. Business materials are for business. We aren’t supposes to do anything personal on any school account or with any school device.

    Dave in reply to Exiliado. | August 19, 2021 at 7:26 am

    I too, am a Florida resident, thank God. Florida’s Sunshine Law is the best in the country.

    drjorey in reply to Exiliado. | August 19, 2021 at 9:35 am

    As a retired Florida Chief of Police, ALL governmental emails are public record, if you deny a request you can be in front of Judge within 24 hours explaining yourself and most Florida Judges don’t like Emergency Hearings.

    diver64 in reply to Exiliado. | August 20, 2021 at 4:31 am

    I can see suing the school board if they released private information to get them to stop but if Solas requested information that was deemed private like medical records the school boards job is to say no and not do it. If they do release it the unions problem is with the board not a person for requesting it.

I think she’ll prevail – if the judge isn’t corrupt.

Why, it’s almost as if the union attorneys received their education in schools where any requirement to actually master the subject matter was deemer burdensome and racist.

That this syndrome is much less likely to infect conservative-minded legal institutes would give me great hope for our collective future, were it not that upcoming judges are just as likely to suffer these same deficiencies. Certainly the First Circuit’s abysmal performance in Caniglia v. Strom, slammed 9-0 by SCOTUS, indicates that legal excellence and rigor are no guarantees of victory.

Blaise MacLean | August 18, 2021 at 10:47 pm

One of the issues that I find most offensive relates to the issue of legal costs. If we assume for a moment that Ms. Solas wins, it is pretty clear from this post and Mr. Jacobson’s earlier post about the SLAPP proceeding, that the lawsuit against her is beyond frivolous. It is abusive and an attempt to conduct “lawfare” to intimidate.

This brings up the issue of costs. Obviously, a claim ought to be made that Ms. Solas receive her legal costs (I know there is a legal foundation covering this but that should not shield the loser from paying legal costs). But the problem is about WHO would pay those legal costs. I do NOT think the taxpayers and other supporters of that school board should have to bear that cost. Nor even the union dues payers of the union, who are often forced to pay those dues in order to have a job.

The costs should be held payable PERSONALLY by those who were behind this abusive litigation. Their conduct is egregious, frivolous in law and designed to intimidate people from exercising a legal right…it smells of extortion. In no way should it be seen as a part of them doing their jobs or carrying out their function. On the contrary it is destructive of their job and sacrifices the interests of the taxpayers who employ them for their personal benefit.

Ms. Solas and her counsel ought to argue that the lawyers bills be charged directly and personally to those individuals who decided upon this litigation and who retained and instructed the Plaintiff’s lawyers,

    I can see that your heart is in the right place, but there is a problem.

    It is not only the legal costs, but also punitive damages. The individuals who made these decisions will most likely claim to not be able to pay up, or will find ways to delay payment.

    On the other hand, how many of the “union dues payers” have come forward to denounce the union leadership, or to demand that they cease and desist from their illegal attacks against Solas, and by extension, against all parents and students?

    No. Make them pay, and then they can resolve their issues internally.
    After all, teacher unions are nothing but our enemies.

      She’s suing the union, not people.

      Insurance may pick up the non-punitive damages, but it won’t pick up punitive.

      The Union has to pay up. Per the earlier thread, it will be interesting if (Erin Brokovich style) the upstream national union was party to the planning of the harassment. Those numbers would be big.

      FURTHER- their insurance bill just went up 10-fold… if anyone will cover them at all. Or maybe they have such deep pockets that they can self insure- who knows. But a wrongful finding in the punitive zone will hurt them.

      Just like Oberlin, it is well earned.

        Voyager in reply to Andy. | August 19, 2021 at 12:56 am

        Yes. The union made a mistake being the ones doing the suing. If the school district got themselves SLAPPed, it would be taxpayer dollars, but because it was the Union, the union itself is going to get hurt.

    TX-rifraph in reply to Blaise MacLean. | August 19, 2021 at 6:39 am

    While the voters may not be identical to the taxpayers, the taxpayers may become more active in the elections if the school district pays for failing to operate in the sunlight. How many people pay much attention to school board elections? Perhaps that would change.

    ALPAPilot in reply to Blaise MacLean. | August 19, 2021 at 8:27 am

    I agree and would add that if the legal profession had any ethical standard (which it clearly does not), the lawyers filing this suit for the purposes of harrassment and denying a citizen her rights would be disbarred.

    AF_Chief_Master_Sgt in reply to Blaise MacLean. | August 19, 2021 at 9:19 am

    The Union should pay, the school board should pay, and Solas should personally go after each defendant personally. I don’t care that the money comes from the taxpayers, the union dues payers, or where it comes. The voters put these people in place. The teacher who are part of the union allowed these people to stay in place.

    Therefore, it would please me to see all of them financially ruined by this, and Ms Solas coming out the clear beneficiary of this egregious nonsense.

    When people have to pay for their decisions, then, and only then, do they understand the consequences of the decisions they make.

    Go after every one of them. Total annihilation, salt the earth so nothing can grow afterward, destruction.

    “Nor even the union dues payers of the union, who are often forced to pay those dues in order to have a job.”

    If I understand correctly, since the JANUS decision, NO public employee is required to pay dues to any union.

    keeblersm in reply to Blaise MacLean. | August 24, 2021 at 10:31 am

    Blaise Mclean, I see your point. It seems that the union is on the hook for whatever the court grants to Solas and Hartman, but the fact is, the district itself has already spent thousands of dollars on legal costs on this case, and will continue to do so. Keep in mind that school districts are always spending other people’s money, and in my personal experience in NJ, lawyers can pretty much charge and over-charge what they want because Boards aren’t all that inclined to ask their superintendents why the lawyers are charging so much and why the super wants to hire those particular lawyers, etc. Most of the time the bills are presented after the fact anyway.

    In this way, any time a parent of resident is wronged by the district and takes it to court (or is taken to court), they are painted as a source of financial drain on classrooms

    So, at some point, even though the district and the union are in the wrong, there will be a board meeting in which the district presents and complains about the high legal costs of parents making record requests, and in this way Solas will be painted as a troublemaker who takes needed funds away from students and costs taxpayers money.

    Those are the times when other residents need to step up and make it clear that the district is to blame for making this all so expensive to begin with, and then vote out the people who decided to make a huge legal battle out of a simple request from a parent to see the curriculum.

The process is itself the punishment.

    thetaqjr in reply to Danny. | August 19, 2021 at 3:12 am

    Regardless of the outcome, when Big vs Small engage, the process punishes the Small, the individual, Ms. Solas.

    We know her name, her personal setting, her portrait. We don’t even know those other bastards,

    I’d like some faces, maybe one looks like Joe, another like Hillary or Nancy, we, as her supporters, need images of those kinds of easy to hate faces, faces to hate hard, make them almost tangible.

      Danny in reply to thetaqjr. | August 19, 2021 at 11:17 pm

      We very obviously have no influence in the state in question but we need to start passing laws to protect the small.

Patrick Crowly worked for NEARI before being promoted to DC to work for NEA. Now I see he is involved in this suit

It would be interesting to know if he still works for the big boys in DC.

We are thinking about the law here but we also need to watch the process, especially the judge. The corrupt thugs will do everything they can to crush the truth and to deny justice. The law is their weapon and they do not tolerate it being used on them. But, the weasels and snakes could turn on each other as bullies are cowards.

Professor, great call on the application of anti-SLAPP

YAY! SLAPP them down!

I am completely mystified by the unions actions. I can somewhat understand why they sued the school district if the district had released or would release private information on the teachers to stop that but to sue Solas and her husband for requesting public records? That makes no sense and I’d really like to see the history and schooling of those lawyers who agreed that this was a good idea. I am not a lawyer but this seems to me to be a clear, ham handed intimidation tactic to get Solas to stop acting questions she has a right to get answers for.

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