01/14/2014 09:09 am ET Updated Mar 16, 2014

Wal-Mart Developer Files "Shill" Lawsuit Against Food Workers Union

A Pennsylvania-based developer is suing a United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local for $1.5 million, alleging the union is using a "Shill Strategy" to line up neighbors to block his proposed Wal-Mart superstore.

The developer, Peter Abrams, doing business as ARD Hamilton, LLC, has a lease agreement with Wal-Mart for the construction of a 160,697 square foot Wal-Mart superstore on 24.2 acres of land in Hamilton Township, New Jersey. The main parcel owned by Abrams was assessed in 2010 for $4.2 million.

Hamilton Township, which boasts it was ranked 75th on CNN/Money Magazine's list of the nation's best small cities in 2012, is a community of 90,000 people roughly 42 miles northeast of Philadelphia. The Township has no less than 6 Wal-Mart stores within 15 miles---so residents looking for cheap Chinese imports have outlets as close as 6 miles away.

Last June, a lawsuit was filed by four neighbors of the Wal-Mart project in Superior Court in Mercer County, New Jersey, seeking to overturn the Township's approval of the development. The plaintiffs are UFCW members. About a month later, Peter Abrams filed a countersuit accusing Local 1360 of putting the neighbors up to it, and paying for their legal expenses. Abrams says the plaintiffs are just "shills" of the Union, and describes their lawsuit as a "Shill Action."

The Abrams' lawsuit says: "As part of its Shill Strategy, the Union solicited its members living in the Township (collectively the 'Shills'), to serve as the Union's 'shills' to oppose the Wal-Mart store." Abrams adds: "the Union has developed a strategy to interfere, prevent and/or delay Wal-Mart's land development efforts by, inter alia, filing frivolous legal challenges..."

Abrams charges that Local 1360 has recently begun targeting "secondary" parties like him that do business with Wal-Mart "in hopes that the Union's efforts would compel 'secondary' parties to terminate their business relationships with Wal-Mart."

Lawsuits like Abrams' are a form of SLAPP suit---an acronym for "Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation"---meritless litigation intended to spend critics into silence. More than 95% of such SLAPP suits go nowhere.

What's egregious in this case is that Abrams asserts that he---a landowner---is protected by the National Labor Relations Act, and that his investment is part of a labor dispute between Wal-Mart and the Union. Abrams charges that Local 1360 has "interfere(d) with the landowner's efforts to do business with Wal-Mart" by "coordinating and financing the frivolous Shill Action."

The landowner's lawsuit says Local 1360's conduct "constitutes unlawful secondary activity that is prohibited" by the NLRA. Abrams cites section 158 of the NLRA which says (in part) it is an unfair labor practice for a union or its agents:

"to threaten, coerce, or restrain any person engaged in commerce or in an industry affecting cease doing business with any other person..."

Abrams complains that he, as a landowner, was harassed by the Union's actions, and that Local 1360 is "interfering with the Landowner's contractual relationship with Wal-Mart."

But the four neighbors who are challenging the ARD Hamilton, LLC project, have the right to file with the courts their challenge to this huge project. There is no evidence that the neighbors have said or done anything directed at the landowner regarding who he does business with, or under what terms.

Instead, they are challenging a decision of their Township to approve a very large project that will have significant impacts on traffic, crime, and the Township's budget. The neighbors are landowners too, following the public process afforded them. Their right to bring this lawsuit is guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which grants "the right of the petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

Attorney Thomas Lesser of Northampton, Massachusetts, who has represented citizens against a number of big box projects, including Wal-Mart, defends the actions of the plaintiffs in this case. "Residents have every right to demand that developers abide by a municipality's local ordinances to preserve the integrity and character of their town," Lesser explains. "And unions have every right to support their members. ARD Hamilton LLC's lawsuit appears to be nothing other than an effort to prevent the exercise of those very rights."

It's a stretch for Abrams to say that these homeowners are "shills." They have legal standing of their own to bring this lawsuit--and they are not required by law to like the proposal Abrams has submitted. It is one of many risks of doing business that local residents may challenge the wisdom of a large land use project. It is also frivolous to assert that Abrams as a developer is part of a labor dispute, or protected in any way by the provisions of the NLRA, especially since the UFCW is not a party to this lawsuit. No one has coerced him to stop doing business with Wal-Mart.

The case ARD Hamilton, LLC v. United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1360- AFL-CIO is a threat to the First Amendment rights of every resident in every neighborhood across America who is facing unwanted development. The Abrams' lawsuit demonstrates that anyone with deep pockets can retain a lawyer, and try to repress the rights of ordinary citizens to challenge wealthy developers and giant corporations.

A compelling argument could be made that the real "shill" in this controversy is the developer, who is simply serving Wal-Mart's "Shill Strategy."

Al Norman is an author and activist who founded Sprawl-Busters 20 years ago. His latest book is Occupy Walmart.