Legal Report, June 2016
General Counsel, Jennifer G. Ashton
Corbett White Davis & Ashton
1. Siegle v. Lee County., No. 2D15-3293, 41 Fla. L. Weekly D 536 (Fla. 2d DCA March 2, 2016). Laches as a defense in code enforcement proceedings.
Ronald Siegle (Siegle) owned a piece of commercial property in Lee County at which he operated a large equipment and engine repair business. The prior owner placed shipping containers on the property. When Siegle acquired the property in 2002, he placed 27 shipping containers on it. In 2014, Lee County cited Siegle for violating an ordinance that prohibited the placement of shipping containers on property for more than 48 hours.
Siegle raised a number of defenses to the code enforcement violation, including laches. Laches means there has been an unreasonable delay in exercising some right that prejudices the other party (i.e. sitting on your rights to the detriment of others). He contended that shipping containers had been on the property in plain sight for approximately 12 years, and that Lee County’s past failures to take some action to enforce the code provision precluded present enforcement. Importantly, Siegle presented evidence that Lee County building officials had visited his property on at least three occasions during the past 12 years and failed to enforce the code provision. The code enforcement hearing officer held that the defense of laches was inapplicable because she did not have authority to grant equitable relief in a code enforcement proceeding. The decision was upheld by the circuit court. Siegle appealed.
The Fourth District Court of Appeal held that nothing in Lee County’s code of ordinances precluded the hearing officer from rendering a decision based on fairness principles, and Florida courts have previously concluded that laches may be asserted as a defense in code enforcement proceedings — particularly, when a government’s delay in enforcing a provision of its code is coupled with an affirmative decision by that government to not enforce a specific code provision.
2. Citizens Awareness Foundation, Inc. v. Wantman Group, Inc., No. 4D15-1760, 2016 Fla. App. LEXIS 7970 (4th DCA May 25, 2016). Florida Public Records Act; attorney’s fees award; unlawful refusal.
Wantman Group, Inc. (Wantman) and South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) entered into a contract in which Wantman agreed to provide consulting services to SFWMD. The services contract included standard language that acknowledged Florida’s Public Records Act and directed Wantman to direct “any public records requests” to SFWMD, who would handle the requests.
In 2014, a public records request was submitted to Wantman at the email address listed in its services contract. The phrase “DidTheyReadIt.com” was attached at the end of the email address. The subject of the email stated: “This is a public records request,” and indicated the request was sent from “An Onoma.” The message did not indicate the person or entity making the request and contained an incorrectly spelled word. The request went unanswered. Eighteen days later, Citizens Awareness Foundation, Inc. (CAFI) filed a two-count complaint against Wantman for: (i) unlawfully withholding electronic records; and (ii) unlawfully withholding public records due to unreasonable delay. Wantman provided the requested records shortly after the lawsuit was filed, and before it responded to the lawsuit.
The circuit court held the delay in providing the record was not so unjustifiable that it amounted to an unlawful refusal to provide the public records. An unlawful refusal would have justified an award of attorney’s fees against Wantman. The court noted the suspicious and spam-like nature of the email, the difficulty in verifying the legitimacy of the request, that Wantman acted in good faith, and the delayed response by Wantman was attributed to the suspicious nature of the email. The Fourth District Court of Appeal upheld the circuit court’s decision and noted “[t]he public records law should not be applied in a way that encourages the manufacture of public records requests designed to obtain no response for the purpose of generating attorney’s fees.”
3. Board of Trustees, Jacksonville Police & Fire Pension Fund, etc. v. Curtis W. Lee, No. SC13-1315 (Fla. April 14, 2016). No good faith violation of Florida Public Records Act; attorney’s fees.
Curtis W. Lee (Lee) sued the Jacksonville Police and Fire Pension Fund (Jacksonville) under the Public Records Act (the Act) and alleged the conditions imposed by Jacksonville prior to allowing him to inspect or copy public records were not legally valid. The circuit court found some of the conditions imposed by Jacksonville were not valid. Jacksonville appealed to the First District Court of Appeal, which ruled in favor of Lee in regard to the conditions imposed by Jacksonville. The First DCA also held that the circuit court should have awarded attorney’s fees to Lee even if Jacksonville’s refusal to provide the records was neither knowing, willful, nor done with malicious intent. Jacksonville appealed the decision of the First DCA to the Supreme Court of Florida.
Section 119.12, Florida Statutes, provides “[i]f a civil action is filed against an agency to enforce the [Act] and if the court determines that such agency unlawfully refused to permit a public record to be inspected or copied, the court shall assess and award, against the agency responsible, […] attorneys’ fees.” Prior to this decision, the First and Second District Courts of Appeal concluded there was no good faith or honest mistake exception to a statutory award of attorney’s fees when a public agency violated the Act. The Third, Fourth, and Fifth District Courts of Appeal all construed the attorney’s fee provision of the Act to require a showing that the public agency acted in bad faith or unreasonably before attorney’s fees could be awarded. The Supreme Court reviewed section 119.12, and agreed with the First and Second District Courts of Appeal. The Supreme Court concluded that courts do not have the ability to withhold an attorney’s fees award because the public agency acted reasonably or in good faith while violating the Act. Additionally, the Court found that the good faith standard imposed by other provisions of the Act was intentionally omitted from the attorney’s fee provision found in section 119.12, Florida Statutes.