PROVIDENCE, R.I. — In the 1990s, Nancy Hsu Fleming was relentless in complaining to state officials about a landfill in her town. She irked its owners so ferociously, they ended up suing her.
On Dec. 12, three days into a counter-lawsuit she filed against the landfill's owners claiming that they had tried to intimidate her and had violated her constitutional rights, they agreed to pay her $400,000 to settle the matter.
"They had clearly trampled on Nancy Fleming's constitutional rights," said her lawyer, Bill Harsch. "Nancy Fleming had a perfect right to petition her government."
A secretary for Thomas C. Angelone, the lawyer for landfill owner Hometown Properties Inc., said he would not comment.
In April 1992, Fleming wrote to the director of the state Department of Environmental Management and said she and other residents were concerned the Dry Bridge Road landfill operated by Hometown Properties would contaminate the town's water supply.
Hometown sued Fleming for defamation in December 1992, claiming her letter was "willful, wanton and malicious" and interfered in the company's contractual relationship with the DEM, the dump's licensing authority.
The American Civil Liberties Union claimed a 1993 law prohibiting such lawsuits — Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation or SLAPPs — protected Fleming. In 1994, a Superior Court judge rejected Fleming's motion to dismiss the lawsuit, ruling the anti-SLAPP act does not apply to defamation lawsuits.
But after Fleming appealed, the state Supreme Court unanimously overturned the lower court ruling and ordered the case against her dismissed.
In turn, Fleming countersued and accused Hometown Properties and its owners of trying to violate her First Amendment rights.
The state chapter of the ACLU said it believes this is the first "resolved counterclaim" under the state's anti-SLAPP statute.
Fleming's lawyer said he was not surprised that the landfill's owners had agreed to settle the case.
"They were just going to have to give up," Harsch said. "To file suit against her was absolutely a clear constitutional violation."
The landfill closed in 1998, and Harsch said the owners admitted the stench was caused by plasterboard that came in contact with water and then emitted a smelly gas.
Neighbors had long complained about the stench from the landfill. They said they sometimes retreated behind closed doors and filtered their air through air conditioners because of a sewage odor coming from the dump.
They complained of scratchy throats and skin rashes they insisted were caused by the fumes.
The Department of Health had said the hydrogen sulfide gas coming from the dump could cause serious medical problems, especially to people prone to respiratory illness.