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Ink Returned to Writer in Haitian Minister Spat

(CN) - A federal judge reversed an order barring a Haitian-American journalist from ever writing anything about Haiti's prime minister and his South Florida business partner.

Laurent Lamothe, the prime minister of Haiti, and Patrice Baker, who described himself as a "prominent businessman" in South Florida, sued Leo Joseph for defamation in September 2012. Lamothe and Baker claimed that Joseph, who runs the Haiti-Observateur Group, published defamatory statements about them in multiple news articles, in print and on the Internet.

After Joseph failed to appear or answer the complaint in time, U.S. District Judge Ursula Ungaro entered a final default judgment against him in February 2013.

The order said Joseph had improperly reported that Lamothe and Baker used their affiliations with the Haitian government to profit from the $25 million sale of Haitian telecommunications company Haitel.

It also permanently restrained Joseph "from publishing future communications to any third-parties concerning or regarding the plaintiffs in either their professional, personal or political lives."

Joseph asked the court to set the judgment aside, arguing that he had not been properly served with the lawsuit.

Ungaro reversed her own ruling last week, finding that Joseph had proved insufficient service of process. The plaintiffs' process server had affixed a copy of the process to a door at Joseph's home in Jamaica, N.Y., and had mailed a copy to that address, which is known as the "nail and mail" method, according to the April 9 ruling.

The judge noted that the "nail and mail" method of service was not acceptable, because the plaintiffs had not made efforts to serve Joseph personally or by substitute service first, as required by New York law.

The process server had not documented previous service attempts, but indicated that he had tried to serve a person named John McCoy, who looked like Joseph, and who refused to accept process. Ungaro concluded, however, that the plaintiffs had no proof that their process server had tried to serve Joseph more than once, or that McCoy was in fact Joseph.

She rejected a news article that quoted Joseph referring to the lawsuit as "a joke" as hearsay evidence. The article only proved that Joseph was dismissive of the lawsuit once he became aware of it, not that service was adequate, according to the ruling.

Ungaro found that he plaintiffs also failed to plead actual malice, a necessary element in libel actions against public figures.

And since judgments that restrain the publication of non-defamatory statements are unconstitutional, the plaintiffs must also prove that extraordinary relief such as an injunction is warranted, the ruling adds.

Ungaro allowed Lamothe and Baker to file a second amended complaint by April 19.

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