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.
- I’m A Mom Seeking Records Of Critical Race and Gender Curriculum, Now The School Committee May Sue To Stop Me
- South Kingstown (RI) School Committee Votes NOT To Sue Mom Nicole Solas Who Sought CRT Records
- South Kingstown Mom Nicole Solas: “They smear people who ask them questions, who disagree with them”
- Update: Smear of Mom Nicole Solas Was Prepared By Public Relations Firm Hired By South Kingstown (RI) School Committee
- RI School Superintendents Group: “We all know many of our citizens live in a separate news reality with Fox, Newsmax and their ilk”
- CRT Battlefront: Rhode Island School Superintendents’ Plan To Limit Public Records Requests Runs Into Possible ACLU Roadblock
- “Parents Will Prevail” – Rhode Island Mom Nicole Solas Reacts To Resignation of Pro-Critical Race School Board Member Who Smeared Her
- Rhode Island Mom Involved In Critical Race Public Records Fight And Targeted By NEA Gets High-Powered Legal Help
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:
- Teachers Union Sues Mom Nicole Solas To Prevent School District From Releasing Critical Race Teaching Records
- RI Teachers Union Seeks Emergency Injunction Preventing Release of CRT Records To Mom Nicole Solas (Update)
- Teachers Unions Exposed To Anti-SLAPP Punitive Claim For Suing Mom Nicole Solas Over Critical Race Records
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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