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Hoch v. Loren

Florida Court of Appeals, Fourth District

June 12, 2019

RAND HOCH, Appellant,
v.
BRUCE E. LOREN, KYLE OHLENSCHLAEGER, ESQ., and BRUCE E. LOREN, P.A., d/b/a LOREN & KEAN LAW, Appellees.

         Not final until disposition of timely filed motion for rehearing.

          Appeal and cross-appeal from the Circuit Court for the Fifteenth Judicial Circuit, Palm Beach County; Lisa S. Small, Judge; L.T. Case No. 50-2017-CA-001198.

          W. Trent Steele of Steele Law, Hobe Sound, for appellant.

          Douglas M. McIntosh and Aleida M. Mielke of McIntosh, Sawran & Cartaya, P.A., Fort Lauderdale, and Michael I. Kean of Loren & Kean Law, Palm Beach Gardens, for appellees.

          GROSS, J.

         The narrow issue in this case is whether an attorney's cease and desist letter to an opposing party is "published" for the purpose of a defamation action when the attorney sends a copy of the letter to his client. We affirm the order granting the motion to dismiss with prejudice because sending the letter to the client did not amount to a "publication" under the law of defamation.

         Appellees are attorneys who were retained by the board of directors of a condominium association to deal with appellant, Rand Hoch, a unit owner at the condominium who was unhappy about certain decisions made by the board. The attorneys sent Hoch a cease and desist letter and sent a copy to their "client." Hoch took offense at the content of the letter and sued the attorneys for defamation. The circuit court dismissed the case for failure to state a cause of action, ruling that the complaint "fail[ed] to allege publication to a third party." The court wrote:

The Court finds that publication of the letter to [the plaintiff] and the firm's client as reflected in the December 20, 2016 letter and as plead in the Amended Complaint, is not publication to a third party as a matter of law. . . . The Court is persuaded by the case law submitted by the Defendants, particularly American Airlines v. Geddes, 960 So.2d 830 (Fla. 3d DCA 2007).

         Defamation is defined as "the unprivileged publication of false statements which naturally and proximately result in injury to another." Wolfson v. Kirk, 273 So.2d 774, 776 (Fla. 4th DCA 1973). "Publication of defamatory matter is communication of the statement to a third person." Granda-Centeno v. Lara, 489 So.2d 142, 143 (Fla. 3d DCA 1986). "There may be publication to any third person." W. Prosser & W. Keeton, The Law of Torts § 113, at 798 (5th ed. 1984); see also Tyler v. Garris, 292 So.2d 427, 429 (Fla. 4th DCA 1974) (the only requirement is that "the defamatory matter must have been communicated to some third person in order for same to be actionable.").

         That said, Florida courts have recognized that certain communications, even though apparently made to "third persons," are not "published" for the purpose of stating a defamation cause of action. To reach this conclusion, courts have employed the legal fiction that the party hearing or seeing the purported defamation is so closely connected with the potential defamation plaintiff or defendant that they merge into a single entity, so there is no publication to a "third person" necessary to the cause of action.

         First, Florida courts have found no publication where a corporation is sued for defamation and the defamatory statement was made by one managerial employee of the corporation to another. "When the entity alleged to have committed the defamation is a corporation, the courts have held that statements made to corporate executive or managerial employees of that entity are, in effect, being made to the corporation itself, and thus lack the essential element of publication." Am. Airlines, Inc. v. Geddes, 960 So.2d 830, 833 (Fla. 3d DCA 2007). In Geddes, the jury found that American Airlines had defamed an employee while investigating misconduct. The third district reversed the verdict, holding:

All communication between American executive/managerial employees are considered to be the corporation talking to itself, and, could not be the basis for any defamation claim because they lacked the essential element of publication to a third party.

Id. at 834.

         Second, Florida courts have found no publication when a defamatory statement about a plaintiff corporation is made to a managerial employee of the corporation. In Advantage Pers. Agency, Inc. v. Hicks & Grayson, Inc., 447 So.2d 330, 331 (Fla. 3d DCA 1984), a corporation could not maintain a cause of action for defamation where the defamatory ...


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