Other Florida SLAPP Lawsuits

As part of the Florida Citizen Participation Tour, I’m compiling a list of SLAPP lawsuits filed in the state of Florida in recent years.

Here are just a few of the more disturbing ones.

Scheff v. Bock

This is perhaps the scariest SLAPP story I’ve ever heard.

Sue Scheff of Weston, Florida won an $11.3 million dollar victory over a single mom from New Orleans.

The mom, Carey Bock, had publicly criticized the business practices of Scheff and her company, alleging that Scheff “exploited families” and placed kids in “risky” and “possibly abusive” programs.

But Ms. Bock lacked the financial resources to defend herself or to attend her own trial in Florida. Before trial, Hurricane Katrina had forced the single mother to relocate her family from the New Orleans area to Texas. Thus, the jury never got to hear the mom’s side of the story, and ended up awarding the $11.3 million dollar verdict requested by Scheff’s lawyer.

As WebWire points out, in an article titled, “Sue Scheff And Florida Company Win Empty Victory Over New Orleans Mom”:

Although it is doubtful the verdict will be collected, it may serve to chill free speech of those attempting to expose child abuse or untoward business practices and destroy the credit of the mom sued. [Read entire article].

From USA Today article, “Jury awards $11.3M over defamatory Internet posts”:

Sue Scheff of Weston, Fla., pursued the case even though she knew the defendant, Carey Bock of Mandeville, La., has no hope of paying such an award. [Full article].

Additional info from the WebWire article,

Ironically, a separate lawsuit had been filed in Utah against Scheff and PURE by the World Wide Association of Specialty Programs (WWASP), with similar allegations…The Florida verdict also ignored abuse allegations at children’s programs to which Scheff refers families because the jury never heard the opposing evidence. The owner of one such program to which Scheff made referrals, Whitmore Academy, recently pled guilty to specified charges in a Utah criminal court.

Vision Media TV Group v. Richard

Blogger Leslie Richard was SLAPPed by production company Vision Media TV (VMT) for $20 million in damages.

According to MLRC:

Vision Media TV Group allegedly contacted Leslie Richard, saying that it would feature her eco-friendly fashion business in a report to be aired on PBS and CNN. But then the company told Richard that she would have to pay $22,900 in production fees and $3,000 in airfare.

Richard then wrote about the incident on her business blog (The Oko Box), and on other Internet forums. She called the incident a “scam” and accused VMT of “scamming small business.”

In response, VMT sued the blogger for $20 million in damages. VMT’s complaint alleged claims of defamation, tortious interference with business relationships, and trade libel.

The blogger could not afford to travel all the way to Florida in order to defend herself. She also had a medical condition that prevented her from traveling. This left her with no option other than to shut up. As CMLP reported:

VMT voluntarily dismissed the complaint with prejudice. In return, Richard removed the posts regarding VMT from her blog.

This is the quintessential SLAPP lawsuit, and its outcome illustrates why SLAPPs are so popular among corporations and wealthy individuals whose critics don’t have extra money laying around to waste on a legal defense. We’ll never know f0r sure whether or not Richard’s allegations were true. But the key point is that it doesn’t matter. The criticism was deleted not because it was false, but because the critic couldn’t afford a plane ticket.

New School of Orlando v. McSween

In November 2007, Orlando’s WFTV Channel 9 reported:

An Orange County mother is being sued because she posted her opinion about her daughter’s school on the web. Sonjia McSween paid almost $10,000 for her daughter to attend the private New School of Orlando. But McSween said she removed her daughter when the school fell short of her expectations. So, she wrote about her disappointment on AOL Hometown, a blog. Shortly after, the school served her with a defamation lawsuit seeking more than $15,000… Channel 9 spoke with six other parents who have had issues with the school. One parent said the school told her to stop talking to other parents about her concerns or they would remove her child. [See full story. Also, read Orlando Sentinel article; view complaint].

According to MLRC:

After receiving a letter threatening legal action over the comments, Sonjia McSween moved her comments to another site (blogspot), then another (see McSween’s MySpace page).

Read part of the mom’s critique on the blogspot page, which she calls, “Musings of a Disappointed Parent.”

Internet Solutions v. Marshall

Yet another individual sued by Internet Solutions for calling it out for alleged “phishing scams.” According to Media Law Resource Center:

Internet Solutions Corporation (ISC), which operates various websites on employment recruiting and Internet advertising, sued blogger Tabatha Marshall after her site, www.tabathamarshall.com, claimed that ISC was operating a “phishing” scam.

Jones v. Above the Law.com

According to CMLP:

In October 2009, Donald Marvin Jones, a law professor at the University of Miami School of Law, sued David Lat and David Minkin, editor and publisher of the popular law gossip blog Above the Law (ATL), as well as ATL’s parent company, Dead Horse Media. The complaint seeks $22 million in damages and an injunction “enjoining Abovethelaw to remove all articles and posts concerning Professor Jones.”

The lawsuit revolves around a series of posts ATL published after Jones was arrested in 2007 on suspicion of trying to solicit sex from a prostitute. In these posts, ATL made fun of Jones—calling him “The Nutty Professor”—and posted a screenshot of the “incident report” for his arrest. In one post, Lat published a photo/graphic mash-up collage forwarded to him by a reader that—according to the complaint—”depict[ed] Professor Jones as a drug dealer and a pimp or both.” The graphic featured one photograph of Jones superimposed on a $20 bill and another talking up a group of prostitutes.

Palm Coast Travel v. Elliott

Palm Coast Travel sued Christopher Elliott after Elliott blogged about regulators from the state of Florida having warned Palm Coast Travel that offering policies from bankrupt Prime TravelProtection Services might violate state law. (See Elliott’s blog entry, “Florida alleges travel agencies sold unauthorized insurance policies”). Palm Coast Travel later dropped the charges in exchange for “an apology.”

Hollo v. Lechuga

Tibor Hollo and his company Opera Tower, LLC, sued Lucas Lechuga for $25 million in damages. Lechuga reported on his blog, “Miami Condo Investments Blog,” that Hollo’s company was delaying closings on its condominium project. Lechuga wrote that Hollo had gone bankrupt in the past, and predicting that Hollo’s project was going to have a “high default rate.”

It took almost a year of litigation costs before the court ordered that the lawsuit be dismissed.

Thompson v. Gelin

William Gelin, publishes the JAABlog (http://jaablog.jaablaw.com/), which allows unmoderated, anonymous posting of blog comments.  Anyone who publishes a blog and values reader feedback knows that every now and then someone will take advantage of their right to free speech and say some things that are unpleasant or even untrue.

Apparently some random strangers had negative things to say about Jack Thompson.

Thompson is a disbarred Florida attorney, and an avid opponent of video games.  Shortly after his 2008 disbarment, Thompson filed a complaint with the Florida bar against Gelin, alleging that Gelin’s JAABlog “traffics in rumors, gossip, and scandal about members of the legal community.”  Thompson sought to have Gelin sanctioned by the Florida Bar because his JAABlog site “traffics in rumors, gossip, and scandal about members of the legal community, including primarily judges.” Amazingly, Thompson’s complaint allegedly centers on the anonymous comments left on Gelin’s blog, rather than on statements attributable to Gelin himself. Thompson’s allegations caused the Florida Bar to draft a letter of inquiry to Gelin on December 5, 2008, but no further action was taken. [See also: “Disbarred Attorney Files Bar Complaint” and “Norm Kent Defends Bill Gelin”].

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