Hello and welcome to this Ethics Alert blog which will discuss the recent opinion of the Fourth District Court of Appeal upholding a judgment in a lawsuit filed by a lawyer alleging libel for false online comments.. The case is Ann-Marie Giustibelli, P.A. et al v. Copia Blake and Peter Birzon, Case No. 4D14-3231 (Florida 4th DCA, January 6, 2016) and the link to the opinion is here: https://www.4dca.org/opinions/Jan.%202016/01-06-16/4D14-3231.op.pdf
According to the opinion, the lawyer, who practices in Plantation, Florida, represented Copia Blake in her divorce from Peter Birzon; however, (a)fter a breakdown in the attorney-client relationship between Guistibelli and her client, Blake and oddly, Birzon as well, took to the Internet to post defamatory reviews of Guistibelli.” The reviews complained about the lawyer’s representation alleged that the lawyer had “altered her charges to four times the original (fee) quote with no explanation” and then submitted doctored evidence to the court during the litigation to cover up the false statements.
The lawyer sued Blake and Birzon for libel and damages based on the false online reviews (and also for breach of contract) and was awarded $350,000.00 in punitive damages on the libel allegation after both admitted in court that they posted the reviews and “both admitted at trial that Giustibelli had not charged Blake four times more than what was quoted in the agreement.” The opinion quoted the online statements:
“She misrepresented her fees with regards to the contract I initially signed. The contract she submitted to the courts for her fees were 4 times her original quote and pages of the original had been exchanged to support her claims…”
“No integrity. Will say one thing and do another. Her fees outweigh the truth.”
“Altered her charges to 4 times the original quote with no explanation.”
Blake and Birzon argued that their internet reviews “constituted statements of opinion and thus were protected by the First Amendment and not actionable as defamation.” The opinion found that “all the reviews contained allegations that Giustibelli lied to Blake regarding the attorney’s fee. Two of the reviews contained the allegation that Giustibelli falsified a contract. These are factual allegations, and the evidence showed they were false.”
The opinion also addressed the argument that libel per se no longer exists after the United States Supreme Court opinion in Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323 (1974) (here: Gertz v. Welch USSC 1974) and stated that “the Florida Supreme Court recognized that, with respect to a libel action against the media, it is no longer accurate to say that words “amounting to a libel per se necessarily import damage and malice in legal contemplation, so these elements need not be pleaded or proved, as they are conclusively presumed as a matter of law.’” (emphasis supplied). The opinion also noted that, since the lawyer was not a media defendant, libel per se still applied.
Bottom line: According to this Florida appellate opinion, a Florida lawyer can sue a client (and her spouse or ex-spouse) for false and libelous online statements and, since the lawyer was not a media defendant, libel per se applies if the statements are shown to be factually false.
Be careful out there!
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Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire
Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.
2454 McMullen Booth Road, Suite 431
Clearwater, Florida 33759
Office (727) 799-1688
Fax (727) 799-1670