Ralph and Margie Gee of Burbank never expected their protests over airport noise and expansion plans to tie up their home in a lengthy court dispute.
But when they and other homeowners filed suit and their fight with the Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena Airport Authority turned ugly, airport officials filed a notice of lis pendens --meaning that the Gees' home is now the subject of litigation--and they can expect a tough time selling or refinancing it until the airport authority drops its claim.
About 400 nearby residents, who like the Gees sued the authority in 1982, face the same consequences.
The Gees and their neighbors are not alone. A growing number of homeowner groups and community activists in Southern California and across the country are learning the hard way that what they say and what they do can get them sued.
Real estate developers, along with public agencies, schoolteachers and city council members, are suing community activists over proposed building moratoriums, ballot initiatives, charges of incompetence, recall petitions and even unfriendly letters to the editor.
The charges brought against individuals and groups may include defamation of character, nuisance, interference with economic advantage, malicious prosecution, abuse of the legal process and even emotional distress.
Homeowners who try to stymie new construction projects are particularly vulnerable as a small but growing number of builders discover that conflict is sometimes more effective than compromise, and that a lawsuit, or even the threat of a suit, can quiet homeowner protests.
"It takes time and money to counter such claims," said Margie Gee. "It's taking democracy away."
Suits aimed at community activists have become common enough that they've even been given a name: "strategic lawsuits against public participation," or SLAPPs.
Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of SLAPPs are filed every year, report Penelope Canan and George W. Pring, two University of Denver law professors whose researchers came up with the "SLAPP" nickname as part of an ongoing study.
While most developers and other plaintiffs see their SLAPP suits as the only way to counter unfair opposition, Canan and Pring take the position that these suits seek to stifle public participation in politics. "We think of them as bogus lawsuits," Canan said.
SLAPP suits, she argued, violate the petition clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which protects private citizens who petition the government. And because most citizen groups are essentially petitioning the government to control the private sector, she believes, their activities should be protected.
Based on their study of several hundred SLAPPs, the University of Denver researchers found that the average SLAPP asks for $9 million in damages and lasts about three years before getting resolved. Such actions are also most popular in California, New York and Colorado.
Most SLAPPs, the Denver professors said, eventually get thrown out of court on constitutional grounds. And a sizable number of cases result in what's known as a SLAPP-back, where the finally victorious homeowners then sue the developer for suing them.
Very few developers win in court, Canan said, adding that experienced developers "know the value of good public relations" and they recognize that suing the community may do more harm than good.
Most developers who do file or threaten a SLAPP suit don't expect to win, Pring said, but SLAPPs are "seen as a way to silence the opposition."
For the Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena Airport Authority, filing a notice of lis pendens was intended to persuade dissident homeowners to sign navigation easements that give the airport rights to schedule takeoffs and landings over adjacent homes.
Without such an easement, expanding flight schedules and facilities becomes more difficult for the airport. And, said airport spokesman Victor J. Gill, "we have to protect our interests."
Among California homeowner groups facing SLAPP suits:
--A group of homeowners in Thousand Oaks has put up its community center as collateral for a court judgment won by the Lang Ranch Co.
The Westlake North Property Assn. originally filed suit against Lang Ranch and the City of Thousand Oaks in an attempt to block a mixed-use project that the homeowners believed didn't have a proper environmental impact report.
Not only did the homeowners lose their bid for a hearing, but the judge, at the urging of the developer, imposed sanctions totaling $750,000 against the homeowners and their attorneys. Fearing they would be held personally liable for the judgment, the homeowners settled with Lang Ranch and other defendants named in their suit.
The group's attorneys have appealed the decision and are seeking to reverse the sanctions imposed by the U.S. District Court.