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Sisto v. America Condominium Association, Inc.

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

June 29, 2016

Bennie Sisto, as the Trustee of Goat Island Realty Trust
v.
America Condominium Association, Inc., et al.

         Newport County No. 08-1119 Superior Court Edward C. Clifton Associate Justice

          For Plaintiff: Robert D. Wieck, Esq.

          For Defendants: Robert C. Shindell, Esq. C. Alexander Chiulli, Esq. Edmund A. Allcock, Esq.

          Present: Goldberg, Flaherty, Robinson, and Indeglia, JJ.

          OPINION

          Gilbert V. Indeglia Associate Justice

         The saga continues between the plaintiff, Bennie Sisto (Sisto or plaintiff), and the defendants, America Condominium Association, Inc., and the members of its executive board, (collectively, defendants). This time, the plaintiff appeals the Superior Court's award of $8, 924.60 to the defendants for their attorney's fees incurred in defending the plaintiff's claim on appeal pursuant to Rhode Island's strategic lawsuit against public participation (anti-SLAPP) statute, G.L. 1956 chapter 33 of title 9. This matter came before the Supreme Court on February 25, 2016, pursuant to an order directing the parties to appear and show cause why the issues raised should not be summarily decided. After hearing the arguments of counsel and reviewing the memoranda submitted on behalf of the parties, we are satisfied that cause has not been shown. Accordingly, we shall decide the matters at this time without further briefing or argument. For the reasons set forth herein, we affirm the judgment of the Superior Court.

         I

         Facts and Travel

         Setting the various nuances and nitty-gritty details of this seemingly never-ending case aside, the facts essential to the instant appeal are as follows.[1] The plaintiff owns a condominium unit within the Goat Island South (GIS) condominium community. In 2006, he filed an application with the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) seeking to expand his unit. The defendants filed an objection to his proposal, asserting, inter alia, that plaintiff did not own the property upon which he sought to expand his unit and that his proposal failed to comply with certain CRMC requirements. As a result of this objection and other correspondence with defendants, the CRMC questioned whether plaintiff owned the land he sought to expand upon and denied his application.

         In March 2008, plaintiff took his grievances to the courthouse and filed a complaint in Newport County Superior Court alleging slander of title and breach of contract and seeking a declaratory judgment that he had the right to file an application with the CRMC to expand his unit. Not to be outdone, defendants moved for partial summary judgment, arguing that our anti-SLAPP statute protected them from any liability for questioning plaintiff's ownership of the land in their communications with the CRMC. The trial justice granted defendants' partial summary judgment motion; and, in accordance with § 9-33-2(d) of the anti-SLAPP statute, awarded defendants $9, 685.31 in attorney's fees. The plaintiff appealed to this Court, and we affirmed the Superior Court's grant of the partial summary judgment motion in favor of defendants on the anti-SLAPP claim.[2] Sisto v. America Condominium Association, Inc., 68 A.3d 603, 617 (R.I. 2013). Following that opinion, defendants filed an amended motion for an assessment of attorney's fees in Superior Court seeking to recover $29, 748.65 incurred in defending the anti-SLAPP judgment on appeal.[3]

         In that proceeding, the hearing justice first issued a decision in which he determined that the Superior Court had subject matter jurisdiction to hear defendants' motion, rejecting plaintiff's myriad contentions to the contrary. The hearing justice then issued a subsequent decision awarding defendants $8, 924.60 in attorney's fees in connection with the appeal. Final judgment was entered on April 30, 2015. The plaintiff filed a timely appeal.[4]

         II

         Issues on Appeal

         On appeal, plaintiff argues that the hearing justice erred when he determined that the Superior Court had subject matter jurisdiction over defendants' motion for assessment for attorney's fees. He also posits that the fees awarded to defendants were unreasonable. We discuss the specifics of his quarrels below.

         III

         Discussion

         To begin, we sketch a brief overview of attorney's fees as they relate to the anti-SLAPP statute. Section 9-33-2(d) provides: "If the court grants the motion asserting the immunity established by this section, * * * the court shall award the prevailing party costs and reasonable attorney's fees, including those incurred for the motion and any related discovery matters." (Emphasis added.) Thus, in Alves v. Hometown Newspapers, Inc., 857 A.2d 743, 757 (R.I. 2004), we held that when a party prevails under the anti-SLAPP statute, "an award of costs and reasonable attorneys' fees [is] mandatory." We have also stated that the statutorily mandated fees include those in connection with an appeal "for the defense of [such] judgment." Karousos v. Pardee, 992 A.2d 263, 273 (R.I. 2010). This statutory authority results in a deviation from our otherwise "staunch adherence to the 'American ...


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