SLAPP suit in Martin should rouse lawmakers

Palm Beach Post Editorial
Saturday, December 09, 2006

A developer's use of a lawsuit to silence critics of a project he wants to build in Jensen Beach underlines the need for stronger state legislation to curb Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, or SLAPP suits.

Developer William Reily wants to build condominiums on river-view land that now is a recreational vehicle park. He recently re-filed a lawsuit against slow-growth activists in Martin County who oppose his project, suing them as individuals and also suing their businesses. Mr. Reily alleges that the residents interfered with his business relationships and spread false rumors about his project, which the residents deny.

The development's opponents, all members of the Jensen Beach Group, are not the first to be hit with SLAPP suits. Lawyer Robert Rivas said more seem to be filed in northern Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast than anywhere else in Florida. Former Martin Commissioner Donna Melzer was sued for her views on planned growth. Plaintiffs dropped a nuisance suit against her involving a recycling firm before it got to court. Martin Commissioner Susan Valliere's residence was questioned in a SLAPP suit after an election.

SLAPP suits also have been a problem in Palm Beach and St. Lucie counties. A developer sued two Palm Beach Gardens men who challenged drainage plans. Developers sued groups and individuals who opposed development of Little Munyon Island in the Lake Worth Lagoon. A SLAPP suit against critics of the now-dead Walton Road Bridge to Hutchinson Island in St. Lucie County also was dropped before it got to court.

Like many SLAPPs, the Jensen Beach lawsuit seeks to stop individuals from exercising free speech. It cites letters to the editor, television interviews and protests over permits as reasons the court should silence critics of the Pitchford's Landing development. It is a burden to the defendants, who must spend money to defend themselves. Because they are frivolous, SLAPPs usually are dropped before they come to trial.

In a Legislature that is friendly to development and business interests, lawmakers so far have refused to consider anti-SLAPP laws. Florida law bars government agencies and homeowners' associations from filing SLAPP suits, but that does not begin to address the problem.

Georgia, Washington and New York have anti-SLAPP laws. A California law includes a provision that allows a judge to dismiss a SLAPP suit at the start if it has little likelihood of winning. If the judge dismisses the suit, its target wins legal defense costs and attorneys' fees. Florida legislators should look at protective anti-SLAPP laws in other states and draft legislation to protect residents from developers' frivolous lawsuits.