By Noreen Marcus
A developer sued The Coastal Star alleging libel and then abruptly dropped the lawsuit a month later.
The suit filed Aug. 30 in Palm Beach Circuit Court by Hudson Holdings and its principal Steven Michael claimed the newspaper defamed both of them through a false connection to criminal activity. Editor Mary Kate Leming and reporter Jane Smith were named as individual defendants.
The suit seeking $40 million in actual damages and $20 million in punitive damages was assigned to Judge David French.
Developer Michael wants to build a 4.4-acre, mixed-use project at Swinton and Atlantic avenues, at the south end of the Old School Square Historic Arts District in Delray Beach.
The project, known as Midtown Delray Beach, is on hold. The city’s Historic Preservation Board rejected the developer’s site plan and Hudson submitted a revised plan on Sept. 6.
On Sept. 28, Michael’s lawyer Scott Weires filed a two-paragraph “notice of voluntary dismissal” that doesn’t give a reason for dropping the lawsuit.
Reached the next day, Michael said, “We just wanted to have accurate reporting and we’re not interested in being in any litigation with the newspaper or anybody. We just wanted honest reporting and we hope in the future that’s what will happen.”
Robert Rivas, attorney for The Coastal Star, denied that his client published false information. He had planned to file a complaint that Michael’s lawsuit violated Florida’s anti-SLAPP law. An illegal “strategic lawsuit against public participation” — or SLAPP suit — is one that aims to silence critics engaged in a democratic process.
“Hudson Holdings is trying to intimidate and frighten the opposition,” said Rivas, of Sachs Sax Caplan in Tallahassee, before the suit was withdrawn. “The Coastal Star story was accurate and did not link Hudson Holdings to any criminal activity.”
The crux of the dispute was an August Coastal Star story about Michael’s proposed Midtown project. In addition to reporting on the project’s status, the story included background on Midtown and another Michael project, the Gulfstream Hotel in Lake Worth.
Under the sub-headline “Midtown ensnared in sober home action,” the story stated that “Midtown became entangled with the Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office’s Sober Homes Task Force” last fall. It says that brothers Bryan and Patrick Norquist “were arrested on patient-brokering charges” and states that two addresses were listed on the arrest document — “20 S. Swinton Ave., the headquarters for Hudson Holdings, and 48 SE First Ave.”
The story also had Michael’s response: “Michael said he knew about the sober home on Southeast First Avenue, but denied that any recovery operation was run out of the Hudson Holdings headquarters. He also said he’s losing rental income since the sober home on Southeast First Avenue was forced to close.”
Michael’s attorney Weires, of Murdoch Weires & Neuman in Boca Raton, disputed Rivas’s SLAPP suit characterization.
“The main claim is about the association of a developer of a project in Delray Beach and criminal activity in the area,” he said days before dropping the lawsuit. “I can’t imagine why they would be reporting on criminal activity within the same story about a developer’s efforts to gain approval for a beneficial project.”
The complaint stated that the Delray Beach Preservation Trust is trying to block the Midtown project by winning a National Register of Historic Places designation for the district that includes the project site. The “frustrated” trust enlisted the media “to influence public opinion against Hudson and its Midtown project,” according to the complaint.
Rivas said Michael couldn’t sue the trust directly so he sued the newspaper, apparently thinking, “Here’s somebody we can SLAPP and the existence of this lawsuit will intimidate everybody.”
JoAnn Peart, president of the trust, said she doesn’t know enough about the law to comment on whether Michael filed a SLAPP suit. “But I hope that they are not just trying to intimidate preservation groups and the media from covering our point of view because they have certainly used local media almost as advertising for their project.
“I think The Coastal Star was acting responsibly in printing all the information about the history of Hudson Holdings because it’s asking for waivers and variances and being allowed to do things you’re not normally allowed to do in historic districts,” Peart said. “It’s important that the public be aware of this.”