As promised in this earlier post on Related Group v. Stranahan House, I have reviewed the complaint in this matter. My conclusion? Garbage.
There are some points in the complaint, that (if true) might theoretically support a cause of action, but they are few and far between. Finding bits of merit in this complaint to say it is a proper lawsuit is like picking undigested corn out of feces in order to find nutrition. Theoretically possible, but I’d rather starve.
Essentially, the suit claims that the Stranahan House and Scott Strawbridge illegally interfered with Related’s attempts to build a high rise project, and that Stranahan’s legal challenges were completely without a basis in law or fact. (Hi kettle, meet black!). Fla. Stat. Sec. 57.105 would have remedied that at the time of the so-called “baseless” claims. I guess that Related Group forgot about that.
The defamation claim is truly disgusting and baseless. Calling a developer “greedy” does not give rise to a defamation claim. If you’re going to take steps that could hurt First Amendment rights, at least do so with some proper basis.
I really wish that law school required a course in “client control.” Lawyers usually file suits like this because a deep-pocketed client throws a tantrum. Upon hearing the tantrum, the law firm can’t stand up to the client, and thus files the suit. I know that lawyers have a reputation for doing the wrong thing, all the time, in pursuit of nothing but money. However, ethical lawyers (and there are still many out here) remember their Professional Creed and Oath of Attorney. My firm certainly does, and we will not hesitate to tell a client “no” when warranted. To an ethical lawyer, the law isn’t about making money. (See commentary by Jon Katz on this subject).
Lets face it, attorneys make good money, and we do have an expectation that our JD will make us a decent salary. Nevertheless, the law is really not a place to get rich. Yes, Fred Levin and John Morgan would disagree, but they are the exception rather than the rule. If you’re a good lawyer, you’ll always make a great salary. But, for the time and work load, you can go to Business School and make a lot more cash. If you’re not in this profession to do the right thing, even if you have a warped sense of right and wrong, you are in the wrong field.
And above it all, no client and no paycheck is worth sullying your professional reputation by affixing your signature to a garbage lawsuit. Just filing it makes you look bad. Worse yet, what if by some bizarre twist, you actually win? Could you imagine the effect upon free speech if Related Group prevailed? The citizens of Florida would have a big hole in their First Amendment rights, and Related’s lawyers tore that hole for what? Money? Shame on them.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear that Related Group’s attorneys have mastered the skill of client control. I’m tremendously surprised. Gunster Yoakley is a really respectable law firm (that is truly an understatement). Suffice to say that I admire that firm and many of its lawyers. That admiration has certainly been shaken by seeing Gunster Yoakley on this complaint. They don’t need any one client’s money, they have a great reputation, and I thought they defended defamation actions (when it comes to defamation, you need to pick a side). If you check out their website, they even quote a seminal defamation defense case:
“Under the First Amendment there is no such thing as a false idea. However pernicious an opinion may seem, we depend for its correction not on the conscience of judges and juries but on the competition of other ideas.” Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323 (1974).
In other words, read your own website, Gunster! If Stranahan house and Mr. Strawbridge believe that Related group is “greedy” and “trying to destroy them” then Related Group can counter with more speech – not purchase your ethics for a few pieces of silver. I really would love to be privy to whatever internal conferences took place that resulted in someone essentially saying “screw it, our professional reputation doesn’t matter, do what this developer wants!”
The complaint is here. It isn’t the worst SLAPP complaint I have ever seen. It is, at least, drafted with some skill, and it does appear that the drafter might have the ability to apply his or her abilities to a decent case one day. (Which is more than I can say for many other SLAPP complaints I have seen). Nevertheless, it never should have been brought. It seems to have no real legal basis, was a stupid idea (as discussed here), and I’m shocked that an otherwise honorable firm like Gunster would sully itself by filing it. I hope that they come to their senses. They are no bottom feeders, and they don’t belong in the company of firms that would file such an obvious SLAPP suit.