Monday's Chicago Tribune ran a story that had all the makings of a free speech outrage: a developer had sued local residents who had spoke out against a proposed Park Ridge development.
The residents went to a pair of public hearings to express their concerns about a developer's plans for a new four-story condominium building in their Park Ridge neighborhood.
Then they found themselves on the receiving end of a lawsuit.
Multiple people emailed me about this story, and more tweeted it to me. Fie! Censorship! Suppression! The original impetus for anti-SLAPP statutes was developers suing NIMBY citizens. This is a classic SLAPP! It's actionable even under Illinois' pathetic anti-SLAPP statute! To arms!
I wrote the developer's attorneys at Ungaretti & Harris LLP. They responded quickly and courteously. (You may or may not be surprised to hear that's not the response I generally get.) They sent me the complaint, and pointed to some authority that explained their stance.
See, the developer here isn't suing for damages. It's not asking for anything from the neighbors. It's suing to overturn a zoning commission decision denying it a permit to build a multi-family residential and commercial development in Park Ridge. And the developer's attorneys have an extremely credible argument that Illinois law requires them to name a ridiculous array of people in the lawsuit to accomplish that.
Illinois, like many states, has statutes governing how you can challenge a zoning decision. It's not unusual for that path to be a lawsuit seeking review of the administrative decision. What is unusual is that Illinois law (1) requires you to name, as a defendant, all "parties of record" to the underlying decision, and (2) defines "parties of record" ridiculously broadly. The developer has a very credible argument that the neighbors who spoke at the zoning meetings are "parties of record" and that they are required under Illinois law to name them as defendants.
The developer's attorneys pointed me to a case in which the Illinois Appellate Court overturned a lower court decision in a zoning challenge on the grounds that the developer making the challenge hadn't named as defendants the neighbors who had objected to the development. That case also involved Park Ridge zoning:
The Park Ridge residents who made personal or representative appearances at the zoning board hearing lived in the immediate vicinity of the plaintiffs' property. They were more than disinterested witnesses; they actively maintained a position opposed to the plaintiffs'. Their interest in the outcome of the hearing was substantial. They did not seek administrative review of the board's decision because the decision was favorable to them. Their interest became jeopardized a second time when the plaintiffs challenged the decision in the circuit court; yet they were neither notified of the suit nor made defendants. They were thus deprived of the opportunity of protecting their interest-the monetary value of their homes and the aesthetic level of their neighborhood-in court.
O'Hare Int'l Bank v. Zoning Bd. of Appeals, City of Park Ridge, 8 Ill. App. 3d 764, 767, 291 N.E.2d 349, 351 (1972)
I did a little research on my own to see if the developer was relying on bad law. I found multiple cases emphasizing that failure to name the proper parties deprives the court of jurisdiction — meaning that any good result the developer got would be for naught. For instance, in one case a police officer suing a police commission for reinstatement was thwarted because he didn't name, as a defendant, the police chief who had complained about him to the commission:
Moreover, numerous Illinois supreme court and appellate court cases held that failure to name all parties who were of record at the administrative hearing makes a complaint fatally defective. See Winston, 407 Ill. 588, 95 N.E.2d 864; O'Hare International Bank v. Zoning Board of Appeals (1972), 8 Ill.App.3d 764, 291 N.E.2d 349. The requirement of naming all parties of record as defendants is both mandatory and jurisdictional. (Winston, 407 Ill. at 595-96, 95 N.E.2d 864; O'Hare International Bank, 8 Ill.App.3d at 767, 291 N.E.2d 349.) Section 3-107 of the Administrative Review Act states:
Marozas v. Bd. of Fire & Police Comm'rs of City of Burbank, 222 Ill. App. 3d 781, 787, 584 N.E.2d 402, 406 (1991)
In short, I think that the developer's lawyers here are right: there is at least a reasonable concern that a court will find that they must sue the neighbors who appeared at the zoning hearings in order to get relief from the zoning decision. That's a bizarre rule, but it's Illinois' rule, not the developer's.
Quench the torches, let fall the pitchforks: this likely isn't a SLAPP suit.
From my Monday-morning-quarterback armchair I will note that it would have been prudent to have a paragraph in the complaint saying something like "the Neighbor Defendants are named solely as required by Illinois law as potential parties of record to the administrative hearing, and no relief is sought specifically from them." It also would have been prudent to have an advance media strategy when this hit; a furor about SLAPPs was predictable. Nobody's perfect.
Remember: the media doesn't get law. Don't trust its reporting. Don't assume that sombody's failure to respond meant that they don't have a response.
Edited to add: Jack Leyhane is not completely convinced.