A lot of people, including the attorneys of the second-highest ranked law firm in the U.S., WilmerHale of Washington D.C. and New York, recently joined the Maggy Hurchalla appeal. They will “help” the appellate court decide if a lower court's award of $4.4 million to Lake Point will stand.
What a surprise they all have in store.
True, the elements of a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP) suit, a phrase coined by Professor George Pring in 1996, seem to be present:
An outspoken environmentalist, Maggy Hurchalla. Check. A billionaire, George Lindemann Jr., who did not like what Hurchalla said about his Lake Point Restoration project, filing a classic tortious interference lawsuit against Hurchalla in Martin County Circuit Court. Check, check and check.
Shoot, with all those boxes checked in a case centered on the supposedly broke, elderly, but still charismatic Maggy Hurchalla, no wonder a dozen environmental groups, news organizations, the First Amendment Foundation and even George Pring himself, who co-wrote the first book on SLAPP suits, jumped into the fray.
They all were well primed first, however, by a statewide media blitz to get Hurchalla's “plight” in print, drawing attention, empathy, and much-needed heavyweights to her appeal.
Hurchalla's deliberate failure to mention to the media that Lake Point already had its permits and its signed agreements, which Martin County commissioners suddenly and unexpectedly refused to honor, likely contributed to her successful pitch for news coverage.
She omitted the part that showed Lake Point would have pumped polluted water out of the C-44 -- which, by the way, is now helping to destroy the St. Lucie River as it flows out to sea -- redirecting the cleansed water to the L-8 canal to the south, an out-of-reach objective long sought by the South Florida Water Management District.
Hurchalla mischaracterized Lake Point's attempt to entice a drought-stricken city like West Palm Beach to pay for some of that water to be cleansed as it crossed through Lake Point's limestone, paying for construction and giving Lake Point a return on its $50 million investment -- but only for 17 or so years.
After which, the entire 2,000-plus acres of this strategic link and all the infrastructure built and paid for by Lake Point would have been donated to SFWMD -- to all Floridians. Martin County would have been the major beneficiary with less algae floating down the river now.
That is, if Hurchalla had not interfered.
Instead, she told reporters only that Lake Point planned to sell the public's water pooled in its rock pits, never mentioning the C-44. Hurchalla also complained loudly about the billionaire bully who seized her two kayaks and old truck -- her “only” property -- without mentioning she also had nearly $1 million in cash and another million or so in other assets at risk, according to court records.
She deliberately failed to mention her own wealth.
Hurchalla apparently wanted people to believe she's broke, so they'll keep on giving money to her three crowd-funding sites, and attorneys will work pro bono for her.
Her slanted sob stories worked. Five Washington D.C. attorneys joined her appeal and more than a dozen organizations got permission Friday from the appellate court to file amicus curae briefs in defense of Maggy.
As “friends of the court,” they will add more information to the case for the three-judge panel to peruse, in addition to the 6,000 or so pages of court records, more than 1,000 pages of trial transcripts.
During the February trial, attorney Virginia Sherlock had pleaded with the six men and women on the jury that Hurchalla had the right to complain. She had the right to petition her government to take action against a company, even if it causes them harm. Those rights are protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, she argued.
A SLAPP suit takes away those constitutional rights, which is why more than 80 to 90 percent or so of the tortious interference cases that get before a judge are immediately dismissed, according to Pring.
Hurchalla's case went before three Circuit Court judges over four years, Thomas McMann, Shields McManus and William Roby. All of them denied Hurchalla's motion to dismiss the case on her claim it was merely a SLAPP suit to shut her up.
McManus denied the motion two times, a year apart. Maybe Sherlock forgot she'd already asked once.
Why would none of them dismiss Hurchalla's case when so many SLAPP suits are summarily thrown out of court? Because the Lake Point case had merit, IF Lake Point attorneys could prove that Hurchalla had, indeed, done what they charged in their complaint. McCann reminded Sherlock and Hurchalla, “... lies are not protected speech.”
The jury of six ordinary Martin County citizens found that YES, Hurchalla had lied about the destruction of wetlands, about Lake Point's permits being “fast tracked and allowed to break the rules.” The jury agreed that she had lied about having no peer review, and no studies, and YES she is the one who persuaded three Martin County commissioners, Sarah Heard, Ed Fielding and Anne Scott, to back out of their agreement, which commissioners, including Heard, had unanimously signed in 2008.
YES, the jury said. Lake Point's case does, indeed, have merit and deserves to have returned to them the $4.4 million in lost profits caused by Hurchalla's actions.
Thousands of people believe deep in the marrow of their bones that Maggy is a victim. They do not care if her methods might be unethical, or that she might have destroyed a business. Her “good” intentions justify the means, which is all that counts.
That's just fine, as long as you do not read the trial transcripts. Then you just might find a surprise or two that changes your mind.
Barbara Clowdus, who has followed the Lake Point case from its inception, is editor and publisher of Martin County Currents.
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