Posted on

Santa Rosa activist devastated by lawsuit over Facebook post

Wallis Mahute is committed to letting Santa Rosa County officials know when she thinks they are not doing their job protecting the community and the environment.

The 67-year-old retiree from Milton, Florida, is one of Santa Rosa’s most vocal activists, sounding the alarm whenever a new development threatens woodlands or poses a flooding risk to older properties built at lower elevations. Ten years ago, Mahute and two other local residents successfully lobbied to protect from development an area around a dozen wells that provide 51 percent of Santa Rosa’s drinking water.

But in the era of social media, that willingness to criticize has landed her at the receiving end of a defamation lawsuit by a powerful developer who claims Mahute is hurting his business. She, in turn, asserts the developer is trying to silence her and infringing on her right to free speech.

The lawsuit, the developer’s second against critics, reveals the perilous legal landscape when average citizens voice displeasure with development issues on informal platforms like Facebook. Now Mahute is struggling to afford her legal defense in what has now become a two-year battle.

Edwin Henry, CEO of Florida-based Henry Company Homes, filed suit against Mahute two years ago in Santa Rosa Circuit Court. Henry sought more than $30,000 in damages for irreparable harm he and his company suffered as a result of Mahute’s social media posts, the lawsuit alleged.

According to the Jan. 15, 2020, complaint, Mahute repeatedly posted a photo with a caption that allegedly contained false statements about one of his projects on her own Facebook account and a Facebook group called Santa Rosa County Stormwater Runoff Mismanagement, for which she is an administrator.

In a recent phone interview, Mahute said the lawsuit was Henry’s attempt to keep her from expressing her opinions about land use, zoning and water management decisions involving his projects. She said the complaint violated Florida statutes that prohibit individuals and corporations from filing strategic lawsuits against public participation, otherwise known as SLAPP suits.

“He probably just wanted to harass me and cause me some financial difficulty for speaking out,” Mahute said. “It is damn awful.””

Henry did not respond to requests for comment. His attorney Robert Beasley told Florida Center for Government Accountability that Mahute is entitled to express her opinions, but that she didn’t get her facts straight before she posted the photo with the offending commentary several times on Facebook. Beasley denied his client sued Mahute as a retaliatory attempt to silence her.

The photo depicts an area where trees have been cleared and soil has been dug up on a development site in Milton. Mahute first posted the photo with a post alleging that more home building in the area would create flooding, and that she felt sorry for those buying dwellings in the area, noting “This has been approved by your sitting county commissioners.””

Beasley alleged that Mahute used the same photo to falsely claim it represented two different sites Henry is developing in Santa Rosa when the picture depicts only one property owned by his client.

“It was a blind and unsolicited attack,” Beasley said. “She is welcome to express her views and her concerns about stormwater issues. What she can’t do is publish false information and attribute it to Mr. Henry.””

The developer’s attorney accused Mahute of posting the image to her Facebook account on two separate occasions in which she did not explicitly explain to her friends and followers that it was the same site. In the second posting, Beasley said, she implied it was another property by writing a caption that read, “more raping and clear-cutting, this time on Bell Lane.”

When he sent Mahute a letter on Jan. 6, 2020 demanding she take the posts down, she only removed some of them and doubled down on her criticisms of Henry, Beasley said. He added that other Santa Rosa residents shared the photo on their Facebook pages too. “She posted the same photo multiple times,” Beasley said. “We were concerned she would continue to do it.””

Henry is no run-of-the-mill tract housing developer. He served as president of the Florida Home Builders Association in 1999, playing a key role in the adoption of a new statewide building code in response to shoddy construction practices exposed in the aftermath of 1992’s Hurricane Andrew, according to press reports. Last year, Henry was inducted into the Florida Housing Hall of Fame and is a member of the Home Builders Association of West Florida. According to the Pensacola News Journal, Henry has developed over 90 communities and built more than 18,000 homes in Escambia, Santa Rosa and Okaloosa counties.

Mahute was not the first citizen Henry took to court for allegedly criticizing him. In 1995, an Okaloosa County man named Hayward Hornsby sued Henry’s company shortly after buying a home from the developer, according to court records and press reports. Hayward alleged Henry sold him a defective house with a leaking roof, improperly installed door frames and partition walls, warped ceilings and other structural problems. The homeowner accused Henry of making only superficial fixes to the problems and refused to refund his money.

A year later, Henry filed a libel lawsuit against Hornsby. The pair’s legal fight stretched for over a decade. In 2005, a court-appointed arbitration panel sided with Hornsby and ordered that Henry Company Homes buy back the property after determining that the developer had “failed to disclose facts materially affecting the value of the house,” according to the Tampa Bay Times.

Hornsby recovered $128,000 and Henry’s libel lawsuit was dismissed with prejudice in 2006, according to court records. The Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation also conducted its own inquiry into Henry, filing four disciplinary cases against the home builder. The most serious charge was that seven of every 10 homes built by Henry had serious structural defects, but that inquiry was dismissed by the department, according to the Tampa Bay Times.

Beasley, Henry’s lawyer, said his client takes his obligations to follow the law and building regulations very seriously. When his client believes that individuals have made unsubstantiated claims against him or his business, Henry will take action to protect his reputation, Beasley said.

“He not only has standing in the community, he has to deal with county and state officials,” Beasley said, adding that unfounded accusations against Henry “puts a heightened sense of scrutiny on him.””

Mahute said the lawsuit has caused her financial and emotional stress. The senior citizen lives off her social security. To pay her lawyer, she maxed out credit cards and raised $2,500 via a GoFundMe online campaign. When she ran out of funds to pay the attorney, he withdrew from the case in March, two months after she gave a grueling four-hour deposition to Henry’s lawyers, according to court records. (The FLCGA learned of the case when Mahute supporters contacted Executive Director Barbara Petersen seeking help locating an attorney and Petersen supplied the name of an attorney).

Mahute said she attempted to take down the posts, but that she was unable to remove all of them because she is not tech savvy. She also doesn’t believe she had to remove the posts because she was expressing free speech. “The lawsuit has cost me financially and caused a rift in my marriage,” she said. “I could not afford an attorney any longer so I’ve been filing everything on my own.””

Mahute accused Henry of going after her because she shows up at county commission meetings to voice objections against his projects. “It has been unnerving,” she said. “He targeted me to make me an example. But it is my right to speak at public hearings. I take advantage of that freedom.””

This past Aug. 25, Henry’s lawyer filed a motion requesting summary judgment with an affidavit from the developer stating that Mahute still refuses to take down the offending posts and is encouraging others to make libelous statements about him and his company.

Mahute said she has not created any Facebook posts about Henry since he sued her, but that she does make comments about him on other people’s posts. On Feb. 8, Mahute filed a motion to dismiss Henry’s now two-year-old lawsuit on the basis that the complaint violates Florida’s anti-SLAPP law.

“Without an attorney I will lose,” she said. “At this point all I can do is send a letter to the judge asking for a trial by jury, I guess.”