Update on Florida’s anti-SLAPP law (recent cases)

An anti-SLAPP motion was granted in Palm Beach County

Update on Florida’s anti-SLAPP law (recent cases)

1 1 Cynthia Conlin

Back in August 2015 we wrote about the new Florida anti-SLAPP law that was updated and expanded on July 1, 2015. The law was intended to discourage the filing of frivolous “SLAPP” lawsuits filed to chill free speech.

The law, embodied in section 768.295, Florida Statutes, created a new (as of 2015) procedure whereby defendants in SLAPP suits can move for an order dismissing the case or for summary judgment. The procedure is designed to protect speakers from expensive, time-consuming litigation designed to chill the exercise of free speech. It also allows for an award of reasonable attorney fees and costs to the prevailing party — whichever side wins.

Recent Cases in Florida

Because the statute is new, there have been very few cases on the books interpreting it, especially at the appellate level. However, there have been at least two orders entered by Florida’s trial courts, one of which granted an anti-SLAPP motion.

Judge finds review on RipOff Report not actionable in Any Time Gutter & Screening v. Loiacono

On September 2, 2016, a trial court in Palm Beach County entered a judgment in favor of a defendant who had moved for a hearing in accordance with the anti-SLAPP summary procedure.

In that case, AnyTime Gutter v. Loiacono, a homeowner had posted a negative review about an unlicensed contractor on RipOff Report. In the review, the homeowner accused the contractor of being rude and disrespectful; had said he could build a screen enclosure without pulling a permit; was overpriced; was banned from the homeowner’s community; was unlicensed; and was doing illegal gutter work. The contractor sued the homeowner for defamation.

The parties had a hearing and the Court analyzed all the allegedly defamatory statements . The Court said that being “rude” was a protectable opinion, and that statements related to pulling a permit, being unlicensed, and being banned from the community, were all true, as was doing illegal gutter work. Overall, the court found that the review was not defamatory, and that the lawsuit was meritless. It entered an order in favor of the Defendant and ordered Plaintiff to pay Defendant’s attorney fees.

The case is Any Time Gutter & Screening v. LoiaconoNo. 502015SC010977XXXXSB, 2016 WL 4619164 (Palm Beach County Ct., Fla., Sept. 2, 2016).

Court denies anti-SLAPP motion in St. Johns County School Bd v. Gray

In another case, this one in St. Augustine, the Plaintiff prevailed. In this highly contested case, the St. Johns County School Board filed a lawsuit against Jeffrey Gray for declaratory relief, injunctive relief, malicious prosecution, and abuse of process.

Unlike most SLAPP suits, this one contained no claim for defamation. However, SLAPP suits do not necessarily need to be defamation cases. As we explained previously, a SLAPP suit can be decided as such where:

  • (1) The lawsuit was filed without merit;
  • (2) The primary reason of the lawsuit was because:
    • (a) The Defendant made a written or oral statement that is lawful and was made either:
      • (i) Before a governmental entity in connection with an issue under governmental consideration or review, or
      • (ii) In or in connection with a play, movie, television program, radio broadcast, audiovisual work, book, magazine article, musical work, news report, or other similar work; or
    • (b) The Defendant exercised the constitutional right to peacefully assemble, to instruct representatives of government, or to petition for redress of grievances before the various governmental entities of this state

Here, the Defendant, Gray, filed a lengthy anti-SLAPP motion, and the school board an even lengthier response.  The court entered an order without any reasoning (which is typical for many state trial court orders), but merely stating:

The School Board did not impermissibly file a lawsuit without merit. The School Board did not file its lawsuit against Defendant primarily based upon Defendant’s exercise of his constitutional rights to peacefully assemble, instruct his representatives, petition for redress of grievances, exercise his right of free speech, or exercise the other rights protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and Section 5, Article 1 of the Florida State Constitution.

The case is St. Johns County School Bd. v. Gray, No. CA15-1316, 2016 WL 6127589 (May 2, 2016).

The future holds how other courts will treat anti-SLAPP motions

Overall, because this statute is still so new, it remains to be seen how other courts will treat anti-SLAPP motions and the case-law develops interpreting them.

Have you been SLAPPed?

If you believe a SLAPP lawsuit has been filed against you, or if you would like a consultation regarding your defamation or other legal matter, call our law office at 407-965-5519. Attorneys at Cynthia Conlin & Associates represent litigants in state and federal courts in Florida.

Cynthia Conlin

Cynthia Conlin is the lead attorney at the Law Office of Cynthia Conlin, P.A., an Orlando law firm focusing on assisting businesses and individuals with litigation needs.

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