October 24, 2006

Florida Appellate Court Sanctions Libel Plaintiff’s Lawyers

Holland & Knight Newsletter
Jennifer A. Mansfield

A Florida appellate court, in a rare decision, has awarded a Jacksonville broadcaster its legal fees in a libel claim, finding that the plaintiff’s lawyers “offered no good reason” why they used inappropriate language in their briefs and launched a meritless appeal.

In the seven-page decision issued by the First District Court of Appeal in Thomas v. Patton, the appellate court affirmed summary judgment in favor of First Coast News, Gannett’s news operation in Northeast Florida.

Shortly after the deeply divisive Terri Schiavo controversy in Florida, First Coast News reported on a local issue concerning Scott Thomas, who had suffered a serious brain injury and then became the subject of a bitter guardianship dispute. The reporting was spurred by a May 2005 press release from the Terri Schindler-Schiavo Foundation, a nonprofit advocacy group formed by Schiavo’s parents, that stated Scott Thomas’ wife Eliza “inten[ded] to move her husband” to a hospice setting “and seek the authority to direct the removal of his gastric feeding tube, causing his death by dehydration and starvation.” First Coast News learned that Pamela Patton, Scott’s mother, had won temporary guardianship of her son. In those proceedings Patton had alleged Eliza Thomas was under investigation by the prosecutor’s office in connection with her husband’s disabling injury.

First Coast News broadcasted and Webcasted reports on the controversy. The reports included the information on the guardianship proceeding, the allegation about Eliza Thomas and an interview with Patton. Thomas declined the broadcaster’s invitation for an interview when approached at her home.

Thomas sued Patton, Robert S. Schindler, Sr., the reporter and the broadcaster for defamation, false light invasion of privacy and conspiracy to defame. The trial court in Jacksonville in October 2005 rendered summary judgment for First Coast News, finding that – based on pre-existing publicity on the Internet about the controversy – Thomas was a limited purpose public figure and had failed to establish that the broadcaster had acted with actual malice. The court also held the fair reporting privilege protected the article, as it was a fair and accurate report on a legal proceeding. Finally, the trial court held that the report about Thomas’ intention to move her husband to hospice and remove the feeding tube was not defamatory as a matter of law, because she had a legal right to seek authority to do so under Florida law by proceeding with a court action.

In its September 13, 2006, opinion issued in the name of all three appellate judges, the First District Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment. The appellate court indicated that it only wrote an opinion because it had decided to award First Coast News attorneys’ fees – against Thomas’ lawyers personally – under Florida Statutes Section 57.105(1)(b) (2005). The statute provides for fees upon a finding that a claim is unsupportable by any application of law to the facts of the case.

The appellate court, adopting the language in an earlier order to show cause issued to Thomas’ attorneys, found her appeal raised “no serious challenge to undisputed material facts found by the trial court,” and her legal points completely lacked merit. The court held that as a matter of law the broadcaster’s and reporter’s publication of statements in the broadcast was not capable of defamatory meaning.

The appellate court, in particular, took Thomas’ lawyers to task for inappropriate rhetoric in their appeal briefing. The appellate court pointed to Thomas’ lawyers’ criticisms of the trial court’s findings as “Baloney,” and of Thomas’ guardianship contest as a “Star Chamber,” as well as her lawyers’ accusations that First Coast News’ arguments had constituted a “fraud on the Trial Court.” The appellate court expressed particular dismay that, rather than respond to the order to show cause by apologizing for their rhetoric, Thomas’ lawyers had “merely reargue[d] their case, insisting that the descriptions used in their briefs … are appropriate.”

The appellate panel remanded the case to the trial court to assess the amount of fees to be awarded to First Coast News against Thomas’ lawyers personally.

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