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Slapp Happy? Related Group v. Stranahan House

Here we go again.

A developer is whining (through its lawyers) that community activists who blocked a condo project cost them millions of dollars. Related Group has filed what appears to be yet another Florida SLAPP suit.

I haven’t read the pleadings yet, so I will only speculate on one of the claims reported in the Sun Sentinel.

The suit alleges misdeeds ranging from civil conspiracy to defamation, complaining that activists called the developer “greedy” in fliers and said Related was “trying to destroy the Stranahan House,” Broward County’s oldest structure.

I don’t know what the Stranahan House did to warrant a charge of “civil conspiracy,” so perhaps this claim is valid. I will update this posts as I learn more.

But, if you call someone “greedy,” that hardly seems to warrant a defamation claim. Even “trying to destroy the Stranahan House” sounds like fair comment to me.

When I hear about a defamation suit, my first reaction is to question the ethics and abilities of the plaintiff’s lawyer. Most defamation claims are so baseless that you’d need to be seriously mentally impared to affix your signature to them, and you’d need to be void of all ethics to actually file it in court. “My client wanted me to” is not an excuse. Any lawyer who does not have the ability to exercise client control should not have a law license.

That isn’t to say that there are not valid defamation suits. For example, Grapski v. McGovern & Florida Blue Key seems to have been a justified and ethical suit. In that case, I questioned the ethics of the attorney who filed it, and after putting some thought into it, the answer to my question was “not unethical at all.”

My esteemed fellow First Amendment attorney, Jon Katz, disagrees and believes that all defamation suits are incompatible with the First Amendment. He’s got a point, and he might one day convert me to his point of view. Nevertheless, as it stands, I am not such an absolutist that I believe that no libel suits pass Constitutional muster. (Jon’s blog is a must read, and one of my favorite sources on the web).

Now, on the other hand… we have to give Related Group some benefit of doubt. It seems from the Sun-Sentinel story that the activists have tied up Related Group’s project with a number of lawsuits. If (and only if) those suits were frivolous, that is a completely different story. Some community activists have been known to file specious claims, and abuse of the legal system is not something that the legal system should tolerate. If these activists did, indeed, file frivolous claims that cost Related Group money, they should be held accountable. However, the defendants in this case are hardly “tinfoil hat” types, therefore, I’d bet a six pack that their suits weren’t frivolous.

I will review the pleadings in this suit and call it like I see it (and reverse my position if warranted). So, stay tuned for updates.

But lets just talk about what I know, for now.

Here is why Related Group’s defamation claim is just plain stupid — regardless of its legal merit.

Lets say the defamation claim is not valid — which I suspect. They lose, get their nose bloodied by the little guy, and run off with their tail between their legs. Related Group loses.

Lets say the defamation claim is valid, or they manage to starve Stranahan House into settlement on that claim. Now they beat up on a historic preservation society and a few citizens who are exercising their right to Free Speech and to Petition the Government. Even if the activists stepped over the line a little bit, Related Group still loses. Sometimes I just have to wonder why a business would be so foolish that it wouldn’t ask its Public Relations team for advice before calling their lawyer.

Take a look at some of the comments about the suit found on Topix:

Related Group is going to be doing business in Florida for a long time. Win or lose, this is going to wind up an issue in permitting or any other process that requires political support — even if it isn’t spoken aloud. Any money they might win from a defamation claim, which will likely be nothing, will be washed away by the bad publicity they will receive.

The smartest thing that Related Group could do is to drop the defamation claim. If their other claims are meritorious, I have faith that the judicial system will vindicate them. However, lumping in a corporate defamation claim makes them, and their attorneys, look like overreaching fools.

The bad publicity has already begun.

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