The Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act (FDUTPA), § 501.201 et seq., Florida Statutes, is a remedial statute intended “to protect the consuming public and legitimate business enterprises from those who engage in unfair methods of competition, or unconscionable, deceptive, or unfair acts or practices in the conduct of any trade or commerce.” § 501.202(2), Fla. Stat. Rollins, Inc. v. Butland, 951 So. 2d 860 (Fla. 2d DCA 2006), defines a deceptive practice as “one that is likely to mislead” and an unfair practice as “one that offends established public policy” and/or “is immoral, unethical, oppressive, unscrupulous or substantially injurious.” The explicit wording of FDUTPA and its interpretations by Florida courts are purposefully broad and intended to help protect consumers and businesses against a wide range of deceitful or unfair trade practices. However, the broad wording and interpretations of FDUTPA could also be harmful to businesses, as they provide an avenue for customers and/or competitors adversely affected by lawful trade practices to bring meritless lawsuits. A perfect example is when a party brings a FDUTPA claim against a business based on pre-suit communications threatening potential litigation, such as a demand letter or a cease and desist letter. It is common practice for businesses to send such pre-suit communications as an attempt to curb another party from further engaging in conduct that is either violating the law or some other obligation the party owes to the business without the need for costly litigation. This is useful in situations that include, inter alia, when a former employee is violating a non-compete agreement, when a party to a contract fails to fulfill his or her contractual obligations, or when a party is infringing on a business’s trademark or interfering with advantageous business relationships. Despite the practicality of using these pre-suit communications, the recipients typically view it as harassing and threatening conduct forming the basis of FDUTPA claims.
One way businesses can defend against and dismiss these meritless FDUTPA claims is by invoking immunity under the Noerr-Pennington doctrine. The foundation of Noerr-Pennington immunity arises from the First Amendment’s right to petition and it is traditionally utilized to shield a defendant from antitrust liability for resorting to litigation to obtain an anticompetitive result from the court. Nevertheless, McGuire Oil Co. v. Mapco, Inc., 958 F.2d 1552 (11th Cir. 1992), extended the doctrine to protect “pre-litigative and litigative activities” from claims for unfair trade practices.
Based on the Eleventh Circuit’s reasoning in McGuire Oil Co., Florida federal courts have consistently applied Noerr-Pennington immunity to dismiss actions based on pre-suit communications. PODS Enterprises, Inc. v. ABF Freight Sys., Inc., 100 U.S.P.Q.2d 1708 (M.D. Fla. 2011), and Atico Intern. USA, Inc. v. LUV N’ Care, Ltd., 2009 WL 2589148 (S.D. Fla. Aug. 19, 2009), both dismissed FDUTPA claims based on pre-litigation letters, holding that pre-suit demand and cease and desist letters are “immunized” under Noerr-Pennington. Similarly, Rolex Watch U.S.A., Inc. v. Rainbow Jewelry, Inc., 2012 WL 4138028 (S.D. Fla. Sept. 19, 2012), applied Noerr-Pennington to dismiss a defendant’s FDUTPA counterclaim based on pre-suit threats of litigation and alleged injuries it sustained in having to defend against the plaintiff’s trademark infringement suit. Another example, Marco Island Cable, Inc. v. Comcast Cablevision of S., Inc., 2006 WL 1814333 (M.D. Fla. July 3, 2006), granted partial summary judgment to the defendant for a FDUTPA claim based on pre-suit letters threatening to sue to enforce defendant’s exclusivity contracts. These cases are just a few examples of how courts have applied the Noerr-Pennington doctrine to help business defend against meritless FDUTPA lawsuits.
The Mavrick Law Firm has extensive experience dealing with the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act and has successfully defended businesses against FDUTPA lawsuits. This article is not a substitute for legal advice tailored to a particular situation. Peter T. Mavrick can be reached at: Website: www.mavricklaw.com; Telephone: 954-564-2246; Address: 1620 West Oakland Park Boulevard, Suite 300, Fort Lauderdale, Florida 33311.