Much ado about nothing: Judge rules Mastandrea was allowed to sue two residents

Orange Park’s councilman’s victory pointless since he never filed lawsuit

By Wesley LeBlanc wesley@opcfla.com
Posted 4/28/21

ORANGE PARK – A judge granted council member Roland Mastandrea a summary judgement that said he was allowed to sue two Orange Park residents. 

Mastandrea was suing the residents for defamation …

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Much ado about nothing: Judge rules Mastandrea was allowed to sue two residents

Orange Park’s councilman’s victory pointless since he never filed lawsuit

Posted

ORANGE PARK – A judge granted council member Roland Mastandrea a summary judgement that said he was allowed to sue two Orange Park residents. 

Mastandrea was suing the residents for defamation after they criticized his support for the Orange Park Plaza Development project on Kingsley Avenue. The councilman claimed their comments defamed him. 

The couple believed Mastandrea couldn’t sue, but the judge eventually ruled against them. However, Mastandrea had already told the court he wasn’t suing the couple, but he then turned his attention toward the rest of the Town Council.

The councilman wanted the town represent him in court and provide him an attorney. Mastandrea said at the time it was the town’s obligation as part of the town’s insurance. Mastandrea also threatened legal action against the residents suing him. 

The town council voted not to represent Mastandrea in court.

Mastandrea said the judge’s ruling also proves the town was responsible, but the attorney representing the couple said it only said Mastandrea’ suit was allowed to move forward. 

Once Mastandrea decided not to sue the residents, the ruling actually was “anti-climactic,” the couple’s attorney said.

“The threat of suit expressed in writing by Defendant [Mastandrea] is a real threat of immediate injury to Plaintiffs,” court documents read. “Plaintiffs deny making any actionable defamatory statements as alleged by Defendant, but Plaintiffs are in doubt as to their rights not to be dragged into baseless litigation by Defendant over the assertions in Defendant’s correspondence.” 

Mastandrea continues to hold the belief that a legislator, in this case himself, acting on Town Council cannot be sued, something he expressed to the council in previous meetings. 

“Even though I provided council with the State Statute clearly showing that a councilman should be represented by the Town, this Council chose not to do so.” a letter from Mastandrea reads. “In fact, I forced the town to get an outside legal opinion. The staff chose the attorney and he wrongfully supported the [Town’s decision not to cover Mastandrea in court]. The court saw the facts as they were in my favor and ruled on my behalf.” 

A letter written by Mastandrea earlier this month directed at council reads: “Yesterday, an Order was filed by the Judge in that case granting my Motion for Summary Judgement and was granted because of what my attorney Jack Krumbein told you should be held as the basis for affording me coverage in that defense. Mr. Krumbein told you all that as members of a legislative body we have immunity from individual liability when a lawsuit is filed against any one of us personally when the lawsuit arises out of legislative functions.” 

However, the judgment only pertained to whether Mastandrea’s potential lawsuit could proceed against the two residents. 

“There is no genuine issue of material fact,” a court document titled Orders on Motion for Summary Judgement reads. “[The resident’s] action is tantamount to a request for an advisory opinion and [Mr. Mastandrea’s] Motion for Summary Judgement is due to be granted as a Matter of Law. The Court does note that the complaint, while describing [Mr. Mastandrea’s] capacity, does not allege facts overcoming individual immunity.” 

Mastandrea says this court filing indicates that the residents in question did not have enough facts to override the immunity Mastandrea is granted as a member of a legislative board. 

“The Town of Orange Park should have voted to afford me that defense coverage,” a letter from Mastandrea intended for the Town Council reads. “I state this here...because I am concerned that the Town Council is not following the law correctly and is allowing itself to be moved by emotions, personal interests or just fear. The law is clear and has been for a long time. Legislators, including local ones like ourselves, have immunity from personal liability when lawsuits arise out of legislative functions. 

“Sometimes doing what we think is in the best interest of the broader population in the town can make us hated or targeted. To be effective as local legislators, we have to be prepared to take a tough task and overcome it for the greater benefit of everyone living in our town.” 

Mastandrea said he wants future council members to be afforded legal representation. 

“The Judge basically said ‘[Mastandrea] is a public official and anything [Mastandrea] says is protected under law,” Mastandrea told Clay Today. “[It also says] that the Town had an obligation to defend me, but they didn’t. They’re opening the door to something really dangerous...when a public official can’t state what he wants to state.”

Mastandrea lost his re-election bid for Seat 3 on April 13 to John Hauber, in the Municipal Super Tuesday.

Clay Today attempted to reach out to Krumbein on multiple occasions to ask if and how the judge’s ruling affects the town’s decision not to pay Mastandrea’s legal bills. The attorney didn’t respond to any of the requests. 

The residents’ attorney, Bob Aguilar, said the case was just a matter of competing motions for summary judgements. 

“My clients sued Mastandrea for declaratory judgement and both attorneys – [Mastandrea’s lawyer] is a great lawyer – filed for motions of summary,” Aguilar told Clay Today. “Normally, at trial, a judge will hear testimony and receive witnesses and then they can make a decision on who the court believes and that’s made not just on what was said, but how it was said. In a non-jury trial, the judge has two jobs: they’re the trier of fact and the decider of law.” 

Aguilar said the reason his clients were looking for a declaratory judgement is that they were looking for the court to take a look at the letter sent on Mastandrea’s behalf last year when he threatened the residents with a lawsuit of defamation unless they rescinded their critical statements. 

“We wanted the judge to take a look and declare that my clients could not be liable under the things the letter stated they said,” Aguilar said. 

The residents essentially wanted the court to say they couldn’t be sued for defamation. Shortly after that, Mastandrea also provided a letter saying he wouldn’t sue the residents. 

“[Defense Mastandrea] counsel’s November 16, 2020 letter provides unequivocal assurances that a lawsuit will not be forthcoming,” the judge’s order on motion for summary judgment reads. “The assurance is given independent of, and not conditioned on discussion of proposed settlement [which the Court does not consider in its analysis]. 

“While the Defendant’s assurances are not a guarantee and do not foreclose the possibility of legal action, under the circumstances, the prospect of a suit is unlikely. The prospect of a defamation lawsuit is too attenuated to satisfy the legal requirements of a declaratory action.” 

In speaking to Aguilar, Clay Today asked if the entire circle of legal action was void of purpose due to the outcome. Aguilar said despite it being anti-climactic, it was a great exercise in law for all parties. He said it wasn’t a moot point case because questions of law were asked and questions of law were answered.  

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