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Citizen libel suit against HB commissioner settles for cash

By Jennifer Glenfield, Islander Reporter

The libel suit against Holmes Beach Commissioner Jean Peelen came to a conclusion March 25.

John Agnelli filed the suit against Peelen in October 2012 following alleged defamatory claims Peelen made about Agnelli in an email newsletter that she distributed to constituents.

Peelen was represented by Jay Daigneault of Dunedin, an attorney assigned by the Florida League of Cities property and liability claims division under a provision in the city’s insurance plan through the league.

“Insurance companies settle cases all the time because going to trail is expensive,” said Peelen. “It never implied or stated that I did anything wrong.”

The FLC covered the settlement, $49,500, and Peelen’s legal fees. The case was dismissed by Agnelli with prejudice against Peelen.

“I’m glad that it’s settled, and I’m glad that it’s over,” Peelen said.

Agnelli, however, said he plans to follow up on a claim he submitted to the Florida Commission on Ethics in January.

“No, I’m not happy it’s over. You can’t learn your lesson by letting someone else pay for it,” he said.

Peter Mackey, Agnelli’s attorney, had challenged Peelen’s representation by an attorney from the FLC, arguing she made the defamatory claims in her individual capacity, and not as a commissioner and therefore should not receive representation from an attorney provided by the FLC.

The circuit court judge who oversaw the case, Judge Diana Moreland, ruled in favor of Agnelli, stating the claims were made in her individual capacity.

Daigneault filed an appeal to Florida’s 2nd District Court of Appeals in October 2013, which agreed with Moreland’s ruling.

Meanwhile, the FLC continued to represent Peelen.

The ruling by Moreland did not state she couldn’t be represented by an attorney provided by the FLC, only that she was being sued as an individual.

Agnelli’s initial complaint named Peelen as an individual, and made allegations of libel against her as a commissioner.

Peelen’s attorneys filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing state law provides immunity to public officials acting within the scope of their duties.

Agnelli responded by amending his complaint to say Peelen defamed him in her individual capacity.

The catalyst for the lawsuit was an emailed newsletter in which Peelen made comments confusing the identity of John F. Agnelli Jr. with his son, Frank Agnelli, in October 2012.

Agnelli confronted Peelen during a city commission meeting the same day he filed the lawsuit and called for her resignation.

Peelen said she acknowledged the mistake and left two phone messages at Agnelli’s office “to personally apologize for the mistake I made.”

Agnelli alleged that an apology did not suffice because her accusations would remain on the Internet forever.

According to Holmes Beach treasurer Lori Hill, the city’s insurance rates from the FLC have not been affected.

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