Brian Toth. Photo: AM Holt

An order issued in Miami-Dade Circuit Court Friday might been among the most significant yet under Florida’s Anti-SLAPP law, according to attorneys involved in the litigation.

Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Miguel de la O on Oct. 19 granted a motion for summary judgment to Miami Herald Media Co., its reporter Julie Brown and the Bradenton Herald — defendants in a 2016 lawsuit by former correctional officers Patrick Quercioli and Dustin Thrasher. His order also awarded attorney fees to the defendants — a coup, according to defense counsel, who say the court granted summary judgment, not a motion to dismiss, in tossing the case.

Quercioli and Thrasher filed suit against the publications and Brown over reporting on the 2014 death of inmate Latandra Ellington at Lowell Correctional Institution in Ocala. Court documents show Quercioli disputed Brown’s reporting that he “had been arrested for ‘dealing steroids’ “and “arrested ‘on charges of beating a motorist in a fit of road rage.’ ”

But the media defendants relied on a Florida law that pushes back against strategic lawsuits against public participation, or SLAPP.

Sanford Bohrer of Holland & Knight

Brian Toth, an attorney with Holland & Knight who served as defense counsel alongside Sanford “Sandy” Bohrer, said Quercioli and Thrasher’s defamation lawsuit flew in the face of Florida’s anti-SLAPP law, which allows early dismissal of baseless lawsuits that violate First Amendment rights.

“That law was amended materially in 2015 to provide greater protections for persons speaking out on issues of public importance,” Toth told the Daily Business Review. “It provides procedural protections in that it provides a quick, expeditious resolution … but also a substantive award in attorney fees, if you’ve been sued in that violation of that law.”

According to Toth, de la O’s ruling might have set a key precedent.

“We believe that this is the first order granting a motion for summary judgment in an Anti-SLAPP action, as opposed to a motion to dismiss,” he said. ”Newspapers have a qualified privilege on reporting on issues of public records. … These COs brought a meritless lawsuit against a reporter and two newspapers for exercising their constitutional right to free speech on matters of public interest and public issues.”

Defense counsel say they have yet to determine litigation costs, but say this rare fee award in a libel case sent a message that potential plaintiffs should “now think long and hard” before filing  frivolous lawsuits.

Tallahassee-based attorney H. Richard Bisbee, who represented Quercioli and Thrasher, told the Daily Business Review that the plaintiffs are still weighing their options.

“My clients and myself are obviously disappointed in the judge’s ruling,” Bisbee said. “We are considering all avenues of appeal.”

Bisbee had previously filed a motion for nearly $31,000 in attorney fees from the defense in November 2017.

Read the order: