Third District Court of Appeal ()
Raanan Katz, a billionaire commercial real estate developer and Miami Heat minority owner, was stripped Wednesday of an injunction obtained against an angry former retail tenant.
The Third District Court of Appeal reversed a temporary injunction imposed in 2012 by Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Ellen Leesfield. The injunction was an interim measure intended to offer some relief against an allegedly defamatory blogger while Katz’s defamation suit proceeded to trial.
Katz’s attorney, Alan Kluger of Kluger Kaplan Silverman Katzen & Levine in Miami, wasn’t impressed with the effectiveness of the injunction against Irina Chevaldina.
“She was writing anyway,” Kluger said, claiming she ignored the order.
In agreeing to enter the injunction, Kluger said Leesfield was particularly offended by a drawing Chevaldina published that depicted Katz defecating.
“She had been writing things that were stretching the facts, a lot of really mean-spirited things,” Katz said.
Writing for a three-judge panel, Third District Judge Vance Salter described Chevaldina and her husband as “very unhappy former tenants of RK Associates,” Katz’s firm. The judge said the appeal is one of eight South Florida legal proceedings between the parties.
In 2009, the Chevaldinas sued Katz, his son Daniel Katz and two Katz companies for breach of lease and defamation. Both cases were dismissed in 2010 in favor of the Katzes.
In 2011, the Katzes became aware of an anonymous blog that alleged Katz was untrustworthy. One statement said, “Raanan Katz and Daniel Katz are the most immoral human beings in the world.”
Katz filed a defamation and libel suit, obtained discovery and learned Chevaldina was the author. He then added counts of tortious interference, invasion of privacy and trespass and sought the injunction.
Leesfield found the defendants “have blogged extensively about the plaintiff and many of these blogs are arguably defamatory.” She concluded the Katzes had “a substantial likelihood of ultimately prevailing on the merits of their claims.”
However, Salter described her injunction as “a classic example of prior restraint on speech triggering First Amendment concerns.”
The only exception would be where a plaintiff could demonstrate special harm of irreparable injury, Salter said. There was no proof Chevaldina’s blog posts hurt prospective tenants.
At the hearing, a real estate broker testified he talked with the director of real estate for Subway. Concerns were expressed about the blog, but it didn’t affect Subway’s leasing decisions.
The remainder of Katz’s evidence “fell woefully short of competent” evidence that any blog entry interfered with business, Salter said.
Jeffrey Crockett of Coffey Burlington in Miami, Chevaldina’s attorney, said she is delighted that her free speech rights have been vindicated.
“Judge Salter’s opinion is scholarly, insightful and well-written,” he said. “It clarifies the law that applies to free speech rights and limits injunctions in suits like this one filed to prevent public criticism.”
Crockett noted Salter considered bloggers the equivalent of an old-fashioned picket, who is allowed to express criticism freely as long as threats and interference are avoided.
Regardless of the ruling, Kluger said the case will proceed.
“There will be a day when a jury will look and see how false and mean-spirited her statements are, and I think they’re going to award him substantial damages,” he said.