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Quintero v. Diaz

Florida Court of Appeals, Third District

January 2, 2020

Luis Quintero, Appellant,
v.
Jose M. Diaz, Appellee.

         Not final until disposition of timely filed motion for rehearing.

          An Appeal from the Circuit Court for Miami-Dade County, Lower Tribunal No. 15-4002 Antonio Arzola, Judge.

          Gerald J. Tobin, P.A., and Howard Brodsky, for appellant.

          Johnson, Anselmo, Murdoch, Burke, Piper & Hochman, P.A., and Michael R. Piper (Fort Lauderdale), for appellee.

          Before EMAS, C.J., and SALTER and GORDO, JJ.

          GORDO, J.

         Quintero, the former Director of Parks and Recreation for the City of Sweetwater, appeals the trial court's grant of summary judgment in favor of Jose M. Diaz, the former Mayor of Sweetwater. Quintero sued Diaz alleging defamation per se based on a termination letter written while acting in his official capacity. We affirm the trial court's ruling as we conclude the alleged defamatory statements were protected by the doctrine of absolute immunity.

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Quintero was the Director of Parks and Recreation for the City of Sweetwater during the time that Diaz was the City's Mayor. On June 2, 2014, Diaz-acting in his official capacity as City Mayor-terminated Quintero. The termination letter stated, among other things, that Quintero had exhibited "poor judgment" and had been "incompetent, negligent and inefficient in the performance of [his] duties." The letter was included as part of Quintero's personnel file with the City, which is a public record.

         Based on the contents of the termination letter, Quintero sued Diaz for defamation per se. Quintero alleged that the statements were false, and that Diaz was aware of their falsity at the time he authored the letter. Quintero also claimed that the statements were made in bad faith, with malice and with reckless disregard for the truth.

         Diaz and Quintero filed competing motions for summary judgment.[1]Quintero argued that Diaz was not entitled to absolute immunity because section 768.28(9)(a), Florida Statutes (2014), had abrogated the common law immunity afforded to public officials in defamation per se claims. Diaz claimed that he was entitled to absolute immunity and that section 768.28(9)(a) was inapplicable in this case. The trial court granted Diaz's motion and denied Quintero's, finding that Diaz was entitled to absolute immunity because he was acting in his official capacity and section 768.29(9)(a) did not abrogate the common law privilege. This appeal followed.

         LEGAL ANALYSIS

         "The question of whether allegedly defamatory statements are absolutely privileged is one of law to be decided by the court and consequently is ripe for determination on motion for summary judgment." Stephens v. Geoghegan, 702 So.2d 517, 522 (Fla. 2d DCA 1997) (internal citation omitted). We review a trial court's ruling on a motion for summary judgment de novo. Volusia Cty. v. Aberdeen at Ormond Beach, L.P., 760 So.2d 126, 130 (Fla. 2000).

         The issue presented in this appeal is whether section 768.29(9)(a) abrogates the absolute immunity provided by common law to public officials who make statements within the scope of their duties when those statements are alleged to be false, malicious, or badly ...


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