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Tampa Bay Times files motion to dismiss $10M defamation lawsuit

The paper claims Abruzzo failed to meet statutory requirements before filing his suit.

The Tampa Bay Times is responding to a lawsuit filed by former Rep. Joe Abruzzo, a Boynton Beach Democrat, who is seeking $10 million for defamation and libel.

The lawsuit stems from a Dec. 27, 2017 article by reporter Steve Bousquet entitled “In divorce, lawmaker’s estranged wife claims assault, corruption.” The report is based on a series of tweets Abruzzo’s former wife, Brandy Abruzzo, posted alleging physical assault, which Mr. Abruzzo claims are false.

The Times filed a motion to dismiss under Florida’s anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) law, which are aimed at stamping out frivolous lawsuits.

The Times also claims Abruzzo never filed a statutorily required pre-suit notice.

“It is a condition precedent to commencing a defamation lawsuit against the news media, and this court lacks jurisdiction over the matter in its absence. Moreover, because any alleged defamation claim Plaintiff had against the Defendants is now time-barred under the applicable two-year statute of limitations, Plaintiff’s pre-suit notice failure cannot be cured,” the Times’ motion reads.

The motion for dismissal also claims Abruzzo asks the court for a “flatly unconstitutional” remedy by “forbidding the Times and Bousquet from ever publishing anything about him in the future he would deem ‘defamatory.’”

“Plaintiff’s true motivation in bringing this lawsuit thus crystalizes: he seeks sweeping (and prospective) injunctive relief that would essentially prevent reporting on him. This is the classic hallmark of a ‘SLAPP’ suit,” the motion reads.

That is to seek “via litigation to silence any public discussion about themselves and send an intimidating signal to others who may also dare to do so.”

Abruzzo, meanwhile, claims Bousquet and the Times failed to properly investigate or fact check Mrs. Abruzzo’s claims and if they had, would have found information countering her allegations.

Specifically, one paragraph of the 2017 news article Bousquet and the Times published explains that, “reached by phone, Mrs. Abruzzo claimed she called 911 on May 7, 2016, to report an act of domestic violence by her husband.” The paragraph also explains Mrs. Abruzzo said the report on that call had been “erased,” which a Sheriff’s spokesperson “said was impossible.”

But Abruzzo said that report was available and that he informed Bousquet of its existence via text message and provided the courts with a copy of a text allegedly sent to Bousquet proving it. That text does not include a date or time stamp. The text messages provided in Abruzzo’s lawsuit show a series of messages — some with dates and time stamps and others without — in which both men repeatedly tried to arrange meetings, but were met with scheduling conflicts by both.

Still, Abruzzo references a Palm Beach Sheriff’s Office case No. 16073696, which explains “both [Plaintiff and Mrs. Abruzzo] were in agreement that no physical contact took place, [and] there were no signs of any physical abuse on either party.”

“The false statements and scandalous tweets are, standing alone, unsettling and disturbing. But, when published to the Tampa Bay Times’ 240k plus readers, they are offensive, insulting, humiliating, demeaning, and damaging to Plaintiff Abruzzo and his reputation.”

Abruzzo claims that at the time of the article, Bousquet “knew that Mrs. Abruzzo had been publishing uncorroborated false, and defamatory accusations on social media about Plaintiff, further reinforcing Defendants’ knowledge that Mrs. Abruzzo was a non-credible and unreliable source who had malicious intent against Plaintiff.”

Abruzzo’s lawsuit and the Times’ motion to dismiss are still pending in Pinellas County Court.

The Times did not respond to specific questions about whether they were aware of Abruzzo’s information countering part of their report’s claims, but offered a brief statement.

“We believe this lawsuit is without merit, and we will contest it vigorously,” said Times spokeswoman Sherri Day.

Janelle Irwin Taylor has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. Most recently, Janelle reported for the Tampa Bay Business Journal. She formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a die-hard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics, including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and contentious issues surrounding transit. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also a devoted wife and mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder.

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