Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

Real news for working families.  An online newspaper

Columbia County

Skunkie Acres vs Lake City Reporter – Lawsuit Dismissed: Reporter's Newspaper Article a Sham

Part I: The run up to the hearing.

COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL – On Wednesday, June 10, 2014, the Lake City Reporter, Columbia County's self proclaimed "Hometown" newspaper, published an article headlined: Judge dismisses lawsuit against newspaper. The article was bylined "from staff reports." The newspaper did not respond to a question for an explanation of its definition of "staff reports."

The Lake City Reporter wrote: "A small claims case filed by the owners of Skunkie Acres was dismissed because the newspaper did nothing wrong, based on the allegations and supporting documents." This was not true. The court never found that the Lake City Reporter did nothing wrong. The case was dismissed for failure to state a claim or cause of action. There was no ruling on the allegations.

Skunkie Acres is a 501c3 pet rescue organization.

In the Beginning

This story began back on December 1, 2014, when according to Barbara Haake, "One of our horses was let out of its paddock to roam and we received a call that the horse had been hit on the highway by an automobile." The Sheriff's Office wrote a report which did not agree with the Haake's version of the incident.

The email that the LCR claimed was never received. Click to enlarge.

On December 2, 2014, at 1:53 pm, the Lake City Reporter's cub reporter, Emily Buchanan, called and emailed Skunkie Acres. Ms. Buchanan emailed a photo and asked:  "Here is the picture we have. Is that the same horse that was hit last night and who is the person in the picture?" The Lake City Reporter was preparing an article on the collision between a  car and a Skunkie Acres horse that was on the highway.

At 3:32 pm the Haakes replied to Ms. Buchanan's email with an explanation and photo of the horse that was hit. It was not the same horse. The LCR's photo showed a yellow horse. The Skunkie Acres photo showed a black and white paint. (Photos of the horse are here)

The next day, the Lake City Reporter (LCR), after being advised that Ms. Buchanan's photo was the wrong photo, printed it in the article, anyway.

Florida's Small Claims Rules are clear and specific:
Clerk’s Duties.
The clerk shall assist in the preparation of a statement of claim and other papers to be filed in the action at the request of any litigant.

On December 17, 2014, the Haakes, Barbara and daughter Megan, filed an action against the Lake City Reporter and LCR cub reporter Emily Buchanan in County Small Claims Court. The Haakes were asking for $5,000 in damages. However their statement of claim or cause of action was unintelligible.

Lake City Reporter Editor Robert Bridges

On January 21, 2015, the judge's pre-trial work sheet clearly showed that it was understood that the Lake City Reporter was the corporate defendant and Ms. Buchanan was an individual defendant.

According to the court docket, "defendant made oral motion to dismiss; judge directed them to file it in writing with the court."

According to Plaintiff Megan Haake, the defendant who made the oral motion to dismiss the complaint was Todd Wilson, the publisher of the LCR and not an attorney.

Filing the Motion

On February 11, 2015, Lake City Reporter Editor, Robert Bridges, emailed a motion to dismiss the Haake complaint to the Third Circuit Civil Clerk. Mr. Bridges signed the motion.

The rules of the 3d Circuit have been that pro se (litigants without an attorney) can either file their pleadings through the state's e-filing system, or hand-carry their papers to the Clerk's Office and have them clocked in.

According to Chief Civil Court Clerk, Sandy Markham, P. DeWitt Cason, clerk of all the Courts in Columbia County, explained that accepting Mr. Bridge's emailed motion and exhibits was an oversight and the 3d Circuit rules are that pleadings will only be accepted by either e-filing or hand carried to the clerk and clocked in.

Practicing Law Without a License

Florida's Small Claims Rules are clear and specific when it comes to business not being represented by an attorney:

Any business entity recognized under Florida law may be represented at any stage of the trial court proceedings by any principal of the business entity who has legal authority to bind the business entity or any employee authorized in writing by a principal of the business entity. A principal is defined as being an officer, member, managing member, or partner of the business entity.

The LCR's Editor, Robert Bridges is not listed on the Community Newspapers, Inc. website as a principle. Mr. Bridges did not file any letter or other document with the court or with his motion authorizing him to represent the Lake City Reporter and cub reporter Emily Buchanan. Mr. Bridges is not an attorney licensed to practice law in Florida – facts clearly overlooked by County Court Judge Tom Coleman.

As a matter of law, Mr. Bridges' motion was void ab initio (void from the start) and it is not clear why Judge Coleman didn't broach the topic that Robert Bridges was practicing law without a license. There is nothing in the record that shows that Judge Coleman asked if anyone knew if Mr. Bridges was authorized to represent Community Newspapers, Inc.

A Coincidence?
County Attorney Joel Foreman's Law Firm Hired

On February 12, 2015, the day after Mr. Bridges filed his motion on behalf of the Lake City Reporter and Emily Buchanan, Jonathan Bense, for the law firm of Foreman – McInnis, filed a notice of appearance for the Lake City Reporter and Emily Buchanan. The day after that, Mr. Bense filed an amended motion to dismiss the complaint.

Neither Attorney Bense nor the Lake City reporter responded to questions.

Coming Sunday: the hearing and the final judgment

Comments (to add a comment go here)

This work by the Columbia County Observer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License.


Make a comment • click here •
All comments are displayed at the end of the article and are moderated.