My good friend Marc Randazza has given me the green light on an exciting piece of news. On September 11, 2008, Florida Circuit Court Judge George Sprinkle entered a default judgment in favor of Randazza's client Larry Giles, operator of the Veranda Park News, an online newspaper offering observations and commentary on events and aesthetic issues in Giles's development community. The court awarded Giles approximately $180,000 in treble damages under one of Florida's anti-SLAPP statutes, Fla. Stat. § 720.304 (4), which protects homeowners who engage in petitioning activity in matters related to their homeowners' associations.
On the receiving end of the default judgment is Veranda Partners, LLC, a large real estate developer who owns a controlling interest in the Veranda Park development in Orlando where Giles owns a home. The developer sued Giles in 2007, complaining that statements appearing on his website were defamatory. Allegedly, Giles published statements indicating that Veranda Partners misspent homeowners' dues, changed landscaping to unfairly enrich itself, and partnered with the City of Orlando in order to gain an unlawful business advantage.
Giles filed a counterclaim against Veranda Partners, claiming that the lawsuit violated Fla. Stat. § 720.304 (4) because it was aimed at silencing his petition activity. Bringing the matter within the purview of Florida's narrow anti-SLAPP statute, the counterclaim alleged that the Veranda Park News "was an attempt to petition public officials and institutions to take action regarding matters of political and public importance [in connection with] the state of affairs in [Giles's] neighborhood." ¶ 11.
Section 720.304 provides for treble damages for SLAPP victims, making it in some ways more muscular than most anti-SLAPP statutes:
The court may award the parcel owner sued by the governmental entity, business organization, or individual actual damages arising from the governmental entity's, individual's, or business organization's violation of this section. A court may treble the damages awarded to a prevailing parcel owner and shall state the basis for the treble damages award in its judgment. The court shall award the prevailing party reasonable attorney's fees and costs incurred in connection with a claim that an action was filed in violation of this section.
The lawsuit dragged out for some time, with lots of procedural wrangling on both sides. Recently, Randazza filed the last in series of motions for summary judgment, arguing that Veranda's defamation claim should be dismissed because the undisputed evidence showed that Giles's comments were true, that they were statements of opinion, and/or that Giles never identified Veranda Partners by name, among other things. Giles also amended his counterclaim in late May 2008. Veranda Partners never answered the amended counterclaim, apparently because of trouble finding a lawyer to replace its previous attorneys who had withdrawn from the case. Randazza promptly moved for a default judgment on the amended counterclaim.
On September 11, Judge Sprinkel took up the two motions and ruled in favor of Giles on both. The $180,000 figure represents $35,000 in attorneys' fees spent defending against Veranda's lawsuit (trebled under the anti-SLAPP statute to reach $105,264), $74,168 spent prosecuting the counterclaim, and $1,975 in court costs. For more details on the case and links to court documents, see our database entry, Veranda Partners v. Giles.
Congratulations to Larry and Marc! It's fantastic to see a SLAPP-filer held accountable in such a dramatic fashion. This is a great victory for freedom of speech in Florida.