Shelton developer’s defamation suit against alderman candidate tossed by judge

SHELTON — A local developer's defamation lawsuit against a former Board of Alderman candidate has been tossed by a judge.

Shelton resident John Guedes, who owns Primrose Companies Inc., filed the suit against Matt McGee in October 2021, stating the then-Democratic alderman candidate made libelous comments about the developer in an opinion piece published in The Shelton Herald and social media, including a “false statement that (Primrose) had a property foreclosed on then bought it back from the city.”

Superior Court Judge W. Glen Pierson, in a ruling on Aug. 26, granted McGee’s motion for dismissal, citing no evidence of “actual malice” on McGee’s part when making his public statements.

“When, as here, the defendant is a public figure, he cannot recover unless he proves by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant published the defamatory statement with actual malice, i.e. ‘with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not,’” Pierson wrote.

McGee, after the decision was rendered, said he had been “an easy target” for the lawsuit because of his age and his family’s lack of political connections.

“But in this great country, no matter who you are or how much money you have, if you have an opinion, you are free to share it, regardless of where you come from, and regardless of how much people with wealth and power may dislike it,” McGee said. “I hope my experience inspires both our community and our elected leaders to act on long-standing and ongoing concerns about Shelton development — such as the severe shortage of downtown parking — and that community members will be brought back to the table to re-create a downtown development plan that works for all of us.”

Guedes’ attorney, Stephen Bellis, said the court dismissed the case under the Connecticut anti-SLAPP statute, which he says, “allows a person to express an opinion no matter how outrageous from being sued.”

Connecticut adopted an anti-SLAPP (Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation) law in 2017. The Anti-SLAPP law was written to prevent litigation brought against individuals for exercising their free speech rights. It also provides defendants the chance to have such lawsuits dismissed and entitles them to recover legal fees.

Pierson stated that Guedes is a “limited public purpose figure,” meaning he is required to prove that McGee showed “actual malice” in making his statements. Pierson ruled that the “record is devoid of evidence of actual malice” on McGee’s part.

“The court in this case believed McGee’s statement was just an opinion of a candidate running for office and was not directed to any developer in particular,” Bellis said. “McGee offered no evidence to support his claim in the lawsuit.

“On the other hand,” Bellis added, “the president of the Shelton Builders Association submitted an affidavit that none of the town’s developers were ever asked to pay anything in order to build in Shelton.

According to the lawsuit, McGee’s statements erroneously suggested Primrose was engaged in a “pay-to-play” scheme with local politicians. McGee’s comments were then followed up with a Facebook post that reiterated his accusations, according to the lawsuit.

McGee lost his bid last November for election in the Third Ward.

The suit states Primrose suffered damage to its reputation because of the statements, and McGee has failed to retract the comments. Bellis said McGee has suggested that developers were operating in an illegal fashion, “none of which was done,” he said.

Guedes, known for his redevelopments of the old factory buildings along Canal Street, has stated he has invested more than $33 million for just what is completed or in progress along Canal Street, starting with The Birmingham on the River condominium.

In the years since, Guedes has completed the Canal Street Lofts, the former Spongex site with 47 units, and the Riverside Retail Center, formerly the Rolfite site, with a new restaurant and an optometrist moving into the first-floor commercial space.