By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org
Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Peter R. Lopez has sealed all court records in a high-profile defamation lawsuit brought by Jozef Opdeweegh against the parents and grandfather of a 6-year-old girl who accused him of sexually molesting her at a May 2017 pool party.
Judge Lopez’s temporary order puts off limits any information about the case, including the docket, which is no longer available via the Miami-Dade Clerk of the Court’s website or by going to the clerk’s records office. That means there is no public notice of court filings or upcoming hearing dates – like the one Lopez said in his order he’ll hold to decide whether to lift the seal or make it permanent.
“The court finds that it is necessary and reasonable to require that the file be sealed,” Lopez wrote in his April 9 order. “All parties to this action have informed the court that they do not object to entry of this order.”
Judge Lopez acted in response to a motion filed by Palm Beach Gardens attorney Michael Dolce seeking confidentiality on behalf of the little girl. The motion was filed nine days after Florida Bulldog reported on March 19 that Opdeweegh, a Miami-based Belgian businessman who has denied any wrongdoing, and his wife had sued the girl’s parents, Jonathan and Melissa Cauff, and her grandfather, Stuart Cauff, for launching a public smear campaign against Opdeweegh with the assistance of mega-lobbyist Ron Book.
Dolce, a declared survivor of childhood sexual abuse, is close to Book and his daughter, State Sen. Lauren Book, another abuse survivor. According to her 2015 blog post on Lauren’s Kids, a state-supported charity that is chaired by her father, Dolce has been her lawyer and has accompanied her and her father in a Walk in My Shoes trek around Florida in support of victims of sexual abuse. Dolce declined to comment.
Florida protects the names of child victims of sexual abuse, and the girl has never been publicly named. Still, Dolce’s motion argues that because the lawsuit contains “unmistakable identifying information” about the girl, including the names of her parents and grandfather, her identity has in effect been revealed. The motion asks the court to hold a hearing to determine the confidentiality of court records in the case, impose a gag order against the further release of confidential information and order monetary sanctions against Opdeweegh and his lawyers for the “cavalier and reckless” way they exposed her identity in the lawsuit.
Opdeweegh’s lead attorney is Barry Richard, a prominent Tallahassee attorney who represented George W. Bush in the epic battle for 2000 presidential election. Richard declined to comment.
The judge’s order, however, appears to violate a unanimous Florida Supreme Court ruling in April 2007 that forbids judges or clerks from hiding entire civil lawsuits from the public – even when both sides ask for it.
The practice, known as super-sealing, eliminates all traces of a case from the public record, including the case number and docket. The high court has called the practice “clearly offensive’’ and said it threatens to “undermine public trust in our courts.’’
Florida Bulldog obtained copies of Opdeweegh’s lawsuit, Dolce’s motion and Lopez’s order prior to the court file being sealed.
Opdeweegh’s civil complaint contends the smear campaign against him sought to destroy his reputation and helped lead to his arrest last August for lewd and lascivious molestation of a minor. State prosecutors soon dropped the case for lack of evidence.
Opdeweegh’s lawsuit says the girl made a “false claim” against him. It says the Cauffs sought to have him arrested, using Book as a family spokesman to help fuel news stories, including a Local 10 report in which Book said that “clearly there was an inappropriate touching.” In a March interview with Florida Bulldog, Book said Opdeweegh was attempting to silence the Cauffs by suing them.
Florida court rules require judges to rule within 30 days on motions to determine the confidentiality of records, but Lopez said in his order that he was unable do it on time. He said he issued his temporary ruling “because the parties have reached an accommodation to preserve the interests of all interested persons” until the motion can be heard.
Those interested persons did not include the media or the public, however.
Florida law prohibits disclosing the identity of a person who reports suspected child abuse. The reason, Dolce wrote, is to encourage people with knowledge of a child who is being sexually abused to come forward without fear or exposure to retaliation.
“It is also a crime for persons to make a public disclosure to any unauthorized person of any confidential information contained in the central abuse hotline or in the records of any child abuse case,” Dolce said. He went on to note that Richard, a Greenberg Traurig shareholder, failed to alert the Miami-Dade Clerk of Courts about identifying information regarding a child sex abuse victim that’s contained in the defamation lawsuit. “A review of the clerk’s docket in this case reveals that no such notice was filed by counsel of record for the plaintiffs,” Dolce wrote. “Consequently, the clerk’s office made the complaint readily accessible to the public through its Internet site.”
Dolce further accuses Opdeweegh and Richard of attacking the Cauffs for their “good faith reporting” of an alleged sex crime against their daughter and of re-victimizing the child. “Real and irreversible harm has resulted both to the child at issue and the substantial public policy interests embodied in the legal authorities that have been breached,” Dolce wrote. “As the saying goes, the bell cannot be unrung. The child’s private identity as a sex abuse victim is now in the public arena for her to have to contend with as she grows older.”
Legal scholars told Florida Bulldog that Dolce makes a strong case to ensure the girl’s identity is protected, but that keeping the names of her parents and her grandfather and the contents of the defamation lawsuit private is unlikely.
“The law is quite clear that publication of information identifying the victim or alleged victim of sexual abuse and the reporters of that abuse is not authorized,” said Nova Southeastern University law professor Michael Flynn. “I would hope the court would see fit to limit the damage that appears to have already been done by the publication.”
Flynn said all of the parties and Lopez need to be cognizant of the harm that can be done if the girl’s identifying information is released to the public, but that the identities and other personal information about the defendants is part of any court proceeding claiming defamation. He said the best solution is for any identifying information about the girl in the lawsuit to be redacted.
Howard Wasserman, a Florida International University law professor, concurred. “The parents engaging in a PR campaign doesn’t undermine the child’s right to be protected,” Wasserman said. “But to the extent they may have had any privacy rights, they waived it by engaging a PR professional. The solution may be to keep the complaint under seal or have the plaintiff’s lawyer redraft the complaint without any identifying information and refer to the child by pseudonym.”