"Before I built a wall I’d ask to know What I was walling in or walling out, And to whom I was like to give offence."
– Robert Frost, “The Mending Wall”
A unit owner in a Newport condominium community intent on expanding the footprint of his townhouse-style unit by “walling in” portions of the commonly owned land surrounding it – without first obtaining the consent of his fellow unit owners as required under state law – clearly gave offense to his neighbors.
The Rhode Island Supreme Court recently resolved the ensuing litigation in favor of those neighbors, and, in so doing, also upheld Rhode Island’s “anti-SLAPP” statute to defeat the slander-of-title and breach-of-contract claims the unit owner had asserted against the group of neighbors who opposed his expansion plans.
The court’s primary task was to decide whether the state’s condominium act permitted the unit owner, Bennie Sisto, to expand his Goat Island condo unit beyond its existing walls without first obtaining the unanimous consent of the 153 other unit owners who shared ownership of that land.
The court held that the law does not allow a unit owner to unilaterally expand a unit’s boundaries – even if condominium documents say otherwise. The court’s ruling is of great importance to the state’s condominium community, but its elucidation of the contours of Rhode Island’s anti-SLAPP statute, and the types of speech that it protects and litigation it is meant to deter is of greater importance to the business community and general public.
SLAPP is an acronym for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation.
To help deter these lawsuits, the Rhode Island law entitles a party who successfully defends against a SLAPP claim to recoup attorneys’ fees and costs.