No surprise in high court’s ruling on Maggy Hurchalla’s appeal
Dark clouds always seem to swirl over environmentalist Maggy Hurchalla’s court rulings amid the wider top-of-mind issues of death and destruction.
The first $4.4 million judgment awarded by a Martin County Circuit Court jury against Hurchalla for damages to Lake Point Restoration came Feb. 14, 2018, just as news broke about the Marjory Stoneman Douglas school shooting.
Her first appeal of that judgment was denied by the 4th District Court of Appeal in September 2018 as Hurricane Dorian dominated the news cycle, and now the Florida Supreme Court ruled Monday, April 13, against Hurchalla in the midst of a pandemic that has already caused thousands of deaths.
The high court’s unanimous order this week, written by Chief Justice Charles T. Canady, not only rejected the notion of hearing Hurchalla’s arguments to overturn the jury’s ruling two years ago, but directed that “no motion for rehearing will be entertained by the Court.”
Yet, Hurchalla’s most recent court defeat indicates neither a disaster nor disappointment. Indeed, it was expected.
Florida’s high-court thumbs-down ruling had been widely anticipated after the 4th District Court made its stance clear by unanimously rejecting her attorney’s arguments by all 12 justices last year that a “question of great public importance” existed in Hurchalla’s case.
A “question of great public importance” is the yardstick that measures whether a case warrants a hearing before the Florida Supreme Court – or not. They said no. No such question exists in Hurchalla’s case, despite her assertions otherwise.
Hurchalla’s appeal to Florida’s high court – however unlikely to succeed – was a necessary exercise along her path to the U.S. Supreme Court, where Hurchalla has said she hopes to convince those justices that her case does, indeed, turn on a “question of great public importance.”
According to Hurchalla’s own internet video, she considers her case equivalent to “saving the world,” and this judgment, if left standing, is no less than a referendum on free speech and the right for any citizen to challenge the government.
“If not corrected, the decision will bring a catastrophic sea change in the law and chill — and more likely stifle — citizen communication with elected representatives,” wrote Stuart attorney Gary Oldehoff in a friend-of-the-court brief, representing the First Amendment Foundation and other organizations.
The District Court’s 12-page ruling in September 2018, written by Judge Burton Conner and joined by judges Dorian Damoorgian and Alan Forst, disagreed.
“Hurchalla’s comments were represented as statements of fact, as opposed to statements of pure opinion,” Conner wrote. “Even if we viewed the statements as ‘mixed opinions,’ the statements would not be privileged under the First Amendment.”
He pointed directly to statements Hurchalla made publicly and in private emails to commissioners that conflicted with her sworn testimony in court as “examples of competent substantial evidence that clearly and convincingly proved that Hurchalla demonstrated actual malice … by making statements she either knew were false or with reckless disregard as to whether they were false.”
In other words, these judges are saying that Hurchalla forfeited her First Amendment rights by lying with malicious intent toward Lake Point.
The jury found that Hurchalla had misrepresented the facts regarding the destruction of wetlands on the Lake Point project and about Lake Point’s permits being “fast tracked and allowed to break the rules.” The jury also agreed that she had lied about having no peer review and no studies, which in fact showed that Lake Point would increase the efficiency of the soon-to-be-completed C-44 reservoir project by about 20 percent.
The jury also agreed that Hurchalla’s misrepresentations of facts had convinced three Martin County commissioners, Sarah Heard, Ed Fielding and Anne Scott, to back out of the county’s agreement approved in 2009 – the basis for Lake Point’s claims of tortious interference in 2013. Heard had voted to approve that agreement, which she and Hurchalla said later Lake Point had violated.
The six-person jury of Martin County citizens disagreed.
Lake Point already had operated under the county’s oversight for four years, within the Comprehensive Growth Management Plan rules, without issues or concerns, with all state and federal permits in hand, as well as its signed agreements, which Martin County commissioners suddenly refused to honor in 2013.
In fact, the county levied code enforcement fines under housing development orders that no longer applied to the rock mining and water restoration project.
In a separate but related lawsuit against Martin County, Lake Point was awarded $502,000 for the county’s misconduct relating to public records in this case.
At Hurchalla’s trial, the jury deliberated only 90 minutes to conclude that Hurchalla should pay Lake Point the entire $4,391,708 that an expert economist determined was Hurchalla’s share of Lake Point’s $22 million loss in revenues over the previous four years as a result of her actions.
Lake Point had not asked for a cash award.
The county and the South Florida Water Management District settled Lake Point’s lawsuits six months prior to Hurchalla’s trial. The county, which apologized for the actions of some of its commissioners, borrowed $12 million to pay Lake Point and agreed to allow the operation to continue mining aggregate unimpeded.
The SFWMD extended Lake Point’s contract and its guaranteed purchasing agreement with the district from 20 to 50 years, pushing back by 30 years the provision to donate its land to the district for water restoration and conveyance through Lake Point’s limestone pits.
It also eliminated the previous requirement that Lake Point convert its rock pits to stormwater treatment areas.
Lake Point had offered to drop its lawsuit against Hurchalla, paying all of its own attorney fees, in return for her admission that she had misrepresented the facts, accompanied by a written apology. Hurchalla rejected Lake Point’s offer; however, a courtroom exchange among attorneys when the jury was out of the courtroom revealed that Hurchalla seriously considered agreeing to the apology – if Lake Point would pay her a secret $1.7 million settlement.
Lake Point refused.
Within minutes of the jury’s ruling, Hurchalla announced her intention to appeal their judgment “all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, if necessary.”
It appears that Hurchalla will lean on whatever nostalgia her late sister, former US Attorney General Janet Reno, engenders among her former Justice Department colleagues to convince the U.S. Supreme Court to hear Hurchalla’s arguments.
She successfully recruited the attorneys who had been Reno’s assistant attorneys general and are now members of the second-highest ranked law firm in the U.S., WilmerHale of Washington D.C. and New York, to join Hurchalla’s legal team, previously headed by the late Talbot “Sandy” D’Alemberte, who died prior to the Fourth District Court’s decision to affirm the lower court’s decision.
Thousands of people believe that Maggy is a victim of a SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) suit by a bully billionaire to “shut me up,” although three District Court judges, six citizen jurors, 12 appellate judges, and now the Florida Supreme Court disagree with her.
They believe it, because that’s what she tells them.
Perhaps reading all those trial transcripts is too much to ask. Besides, it’s much more appealing to be part of an important cause, defending “a question of great public importance,” and as long as people are willing to donate to Hurchalla’s legal fund, we expect to see her continue on to the U.S. Supreme Court, dark clouds overhead or not.