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Hullick v. Gibraltar Private Bank & Trust Co.

Florida Court of Appeals, Third District

September 18, 2019

Jonathan HULLICK, Appellant,
v.
GIBRALTAR PRIVATE BANK & TRUST COMPANY, and Steven D. Hayworth, Appellees.

Page 810

          An Appeal from the Circuit Court for Miami-Dade County, Eric William Hendon, Judge. Lower Tribunal No. 12-43235

         Weil Snyder Schweikert & Ravindran, P.A., and Ronald P. Weil, and Iva U. Ravindran; Joel S. Perwin, P.A., and Joel S. Perwin, for appellant.

         Stearns Weaver Miller Weissler Alhadeff & Sitterson, P.A., and Jose G. Sepulveda, Carlos J. Canino, and Julie Fishman Berkowitz; Wicker Smith O’Hara McCoy & Ford, P.A., and Dennis M. O’Hara, Alyssa M. Reiter, Lindsey A. Hicks, and Brandon J. Hechtman, for appellees.

         Before SALTER, LOGUE, and LINDSEY, JJ.

          OPINION

         LINDSEY, J.

          Appellant Jonathan Hullick (Plaintiff below) appeals an order entering final summary judgment in favor of Appellee Steven Hayworth (Defendant below) on two counts of defamation per se. Hullick alleged that Hayworth, as Chief Executive Officer of Gibraltar Private Bank and Trust Company, made defamatory statements in front of Gibraltar’s Board of Directors. Because Hullick failed to establish the essential element of publication to a third party, we affirm.

         I. BACKGROUND[1]

          In May 2007, Hayworth, former CEO, Executive President, and Chairman of Gibraltar’s

Page 811

Board of Directors, hired Hullick to fill the recently-vacated Chief Operating Officer ("COO") position. Hullick’s time with Gibraltar was, however, short-lived. In July 2007, Hullick wrote a memo in which he expressed concern over irregularities and other suspicious activity in a client’s accounts. Over the next 15 months, Hullick reported his ongoing concerns to Hayworth, the Board of Directors, the Senior Managing Director, the Audit Committee, the Chief Risk Officer, the Bank Secrecy Act/Anti-Money Laundering Officer, and the Chief Credit Officer. In addition, Hullick reported his concerns regarding Senior Vice President John Harris, the Regional Market Manager at Gibraltar’s Ft. Lauderdale branch, where the client’s accounts were maintained. Hullick believed that Harris was aware of fraudulent activity in the accounts and was permitting it to continue. Conflict arose between Harris and Hullick, and Hullick was eventually terminated from his position as Gibraltar’s COO.

          Approximately two years later, Hullick filed the underlying action, alleging, inter alia, that Hayworth made multiple defamatory statements about him post-termination that destroyed his reputation in the banking community, making it difficult for him to find employment. Hullick further alleged Hayworth made these statements to the other members of Gibraltar’s Board of Directors during a Board meeting. After numerous motions and orders from three different trial court judges, Hullick’s twenty-count operative complaint was whittled down to just five counts: one count against Gibraltar for breach of contract and two counts each against Gibraltar and Hayworth for defamation per se.

         Gibraltar and Hayworth filed motions for summary judgment, arguing that the element of publication was not established by the allegations in the Complaint based on this Court’s holding in American Airlines, Inc. v. Geddes,960 So.2d 830 (Fla. 3d DCA 2007).[2] The prior trial court judge disagreed and denied the motions, allowing the case to go forward.[3] Thereafter, Gibraltar and Hayworth renewed their motions for summary judgment with the successor trial judge, asserting the same grounds as previously argued. The trial court agreed and granted summary judgment in favor ...


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