MADEIRA BEACH — A 2-year-old lawsuit pitting 11 residents against a then-city commissioner they said defamed them is apparently over.
A three-judge panel from the 2nd District Court of Appeal last week affirmed a lower court's decision to dismiss the case against former City Commissioner Art Thomas.
The "per curiam" action upheld a 2007 Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court ruling without explanation.
Such rulings are made when the court views the disputed issue as involving settled law and usually are not appealable, according to Thomas' attorney Patricia Anderson.
The case began in early 2006 when Thomas wrote a letter that was published in a local newspaper and on the Internet.
The letter responded to earlier published letters attacking his actions on the commission and listed "radical" residents he said used "threats or pressure to make me come around to their way of thinking."
His letter prompted individual lawsuits from Kevin Connolly, Robert Show, Pat and George Shontz, Karen Martin, Steve Truels, Len Piotti, Art and Carol Broaderick, George Gonzalez and Marilyn Maginley.
They said the former commissioner's action was "willful, intentional and malicious" and asked for more than $15,000 in punitive damages.
The later, combined lawsuit also said Thomas had accused the group of committing a felony for allegedly threatening a public official.
The letter, the plaintiffs claimed, held them "up to public scorn, hatred and ridicule," damaging their reputations.
Last year, Circuit Judge Frank Quesada said Thomas acted within his rights as an elected official, particularly as the letter dealt with issues facing the City Commission.
Quesada said Thomas had absolute immunity from lawsuits, under both state law and Supreme Court rulings.
The plaintiffs appealed that decision, consuming another year of legal arguments and attorney's fees.
Several times during the legal fight, Thomas asked the City Commission to cover his legal bills, as is apparently required by law. But he was turned down.
Now Anderson said she plans to ask the court to either force the 11 plaintiffs or the city to pay Thomas' legal bills, which have reached nearly $40,000.
"Art has had a lot of mental anguish about this. It has been awful for him," Anderson said.
"We even went without air conditioning. We cut back on everything. No one should have to go through this," Thomas said.
But the ruling produced a very different reaction from Piotti, one of the plaintiffs.
"This is an injustice. It makes elected officials untouchable. According to this ruling, an elected official could call down from dais and say I'm cheating on my wife and I couldn't do anything about it," Piotti said.
As far as Thomas' legal bills are concerned, Piotti said he hopes his group will continue to fight, for years if necessary.