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Marchant Investment & Management Co., Inc. v. St. Anthony West Neighborhood Organization

April 5, 2005

MARCHANT INVESTMENT & MANAGEMENT CO., INC., APPELLANT,
v.
ST. ANTHONY WEST NEIGHBORHOOD ORGANIZATION, INC., ET AL., RESPONDENTS.



Hennepin County District Court File No. MC03-019319.

Considered and decided by Lansing, Presiding Judge; Willis, Judge; and Stoneburner, Judge.

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

I. To survive a motion to dismiss based on immunity provided by Minnesota's participation-in-government statute, Minn. Stat. §§ 554.01-.05 (2004), the nonmoving party must clearly and convincingly demonstrate the existence of an actionable tort or a violation of a constitutional right.

II. In determining whether an alleged defamatory statement presents or implies a provably false assertion of facts, we look to the broad context of the communication, including the general tenor of the speech; the specific context and content of the statement, including the use of hyperbolic and figurative language; and whether the statement is sufficiently objective to be susceptible of being proven true or false.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Lansing, Judge

Affirmed

OPINION

In litigation between a real-estate developer and a neighborhood organization, the district court applied the participation-in-government immunity provided by Minn. Stat. §§ 554.01-.05 (2004) to grant judgment on the pleadings for the neighborhood organization. The developer appeals the judgment as it relates to its defamation claim and the attendant order for attorneys' fees. Because the developer's allegations do not clearly and convincingly demonstrate that the neighborhood organization's statements declare or imply a provably false assertion of defamatory fact, the district court did not err in granting the neighborhood organization participation-in-government immunity and ordering judgment on the pleadings; we therefore affirm.

FACTS

Marchant Investment & Management Co., Inc. (Marchant) is a real-estate developer that proposed a development project, the River Run Apartment Project, in the Sheridan neighborhood of Northeast Minneapolis. St. Anthony West Neighborhood Organization, Inc. (STAWNO) is a non-profit organization that, along with other neighborhood organizations, opposed the design of the proposed project.

While Marchant was in the process of obtaining the city's approval of the project and the necessary permits, Michael Rainville, STAWNO's president, wrote a letter to the Minneapolis Planning Department opposing Marchant's zoning application and requests for variances. Rainville sent copies of the letter to Marchant, the mayor, the city council, and another development company. The language in the letter that is relevant to this appeal states:

We have met countless times with the developers to inform them of the vision of the Above the Falls Plan and our concerns about having that vision carried out. They have refused to listen to our concerns, especially regarding the height variance, design and the relationship the proposed project has to the Above the Falls Plan.

Marchant's president, James Bartlett, responded by letter, questioning whether Rainville was speaking for himself or for STAWNO's board and pointing out inaccuracies in Rainville's letter. Bartlett said that Marchant had never met with STAWNO and that STAWNO had not asked for a meeting. He stated that Marchant had met many times with the Sheridan Neighborhood Organization and that Rainville had personally "attended a number of those meetings." Bartlett also said that, at Rainville's suggestion, Marchant had met with MEND, an umbrella organization of neighborhood associations, and that Rainville spoke at that meeting.

Three months later Marchant sued STAWNO and its officers and directors, alleging defamation, tortious interference with a prospective business advantage, tortious interference with a contract, civil conspiracy, and civil aiding and abetting. Marchant's complaint specifically refers to Rainville's letter, the response from Bartlett, and a subsequent letter from Marchant to the STAWNO Board of Directors inquiring whether the board had authorized Rainville's letter. In its answer to Marchant's complaint, STAWNO also refers to the three letters and their contents and affirmatively alleges that it has discussed the River Run Project several times with ...


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