Legal Report, February 2015

General Counsel, Trela J. White
Asst. General Counsel, Jennifer G. Ashton

1. HB 383: A Follow-Up to Koontz vs. St. John’s River Water Management District

Case Number 11-1447 of the Supreme Court of the United States.  Creating a New Cause of Action Against Local Governments for Unconstitutional Exactions.
In Koontz v. St. John’s River Water Management District, a property owner sought a permit from the local water management district to develop 3.7 acres of land.  In exchange for the permit, the water management district demanded that Mr. Koontz develop only 1 acre of his land and conserve the rest, or pay for contractors to make improvements to other government-owned wetlands within the same watershed, but several miles away.  Mr. Koontz turned down both options and the water management district denied the permit.  Mr. Koontz then sued arguing that the water management district deprived him of his private property rights without just compensation when it denied the permit.  The water management district argued that nothing was actually “taken” from Mr. Koontz.  On June 25, 2013, the United States Supreme Court sided with Mr. Koontz.  The Supreme Court held that a government cannot deny a land-use permit based on the landowner’s refuse to accede to the government’s demands to either turn over property or pay money to the government unless there is a rational nexus (i.e. logical relationship) and rough proportionality between the conditions imposed and the projected effects of the development.  Governments are prohibited from going beyond mitigation of project impacts and engaging in “out and out extortion.”  In sum, the “nexus” limitation and “proportionality” test state that a government cannot demand a concession from a property owner that is either unrelated to the harm caused, or disproportionate to it.

HB 383 was drafted in response to the Koontz case.  The Staff Analysis for HB 383 states that although federal law appears to give landowners a cause of action against the federal government for unconstitutional exactions, it is unclear whether current Florida law provides for a similar cause of action against the state and local governments.  HB 383 seeks to create such a cause of action in order to allow landowners to recover monetary damages against local governments that have impose conditions that rise to the level of unconstitutional exactions, but do not qualify as “takings.”  In addition to money damages, the aggrieved landowner who prevails in such an action would be entitled to prejudgment interest, and reasonable attorney’s fees and costs.  The bill defines “unconstitutional exaction” as “a condition imposed by a local governmental entity on a property owner’s proposed use of real property that lacks an essential nexus to a legitimate public purpose and is not roughly proportionate to the harm the governmental entity seeks to avoid, minimize, or mitigate.”

This new cause of action will be in addition to takings claims and Bert J. Harris claims that local governments already have to face.  We will monitor this bill and report on its status.

2. Jeffrey Marcus Gray vs. Lutheran Social Services of Northeast Florida, Inc. (“LSS”); Case No. 2014-CA-4647-XXXXCV-E of the Circuit Court for the 4th Judicial Circuit in and for Duval County, Florida
This case was first reported on at the January 2015 League meeting.  The full details of the case are contained in the January 2015 Legal Report.  Gray is a self-described public activist who earns part of his livelihood making public records requests on unsuspecting private entities that do business with public agencies and then suing them when they fail to provide the public records to Gray’s satisfaction.  Joel Chandler helps Gray carry out his public records requests.  In this case, the trial court ruled that the means utilized by Gray to seek records from LSS constituted a flagrant abuse of Chapter 119 and were designed to ambush unsuspecting private entities.  The court further opined that the practices amounted to no more than a scam and denied Gray’s complaint seeking attorney’s fees and costs.  The court went on to state that the Public Records Act “…was not designed to create a cottage industry for so-called ‘civil rights activists’ or others who seek to abuse the Act for financial gain.”  Gray has filed an appeal with the First District Court of Appeal.  Gray’s initial brief is due on March 21, 2015.

3. Town of Gulf Stream, et al. v. Martin E. O’Boyle, et al.; Case # 9:15-cv-80182-KAM of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida; Federal RICO Class Action Lawsuit to Curtail Abusive Public Records Requests: This case was first reported on at the January 2015 League meeting.  The full details of the case are contained in the January 2015 Legal Report.  The Town of Gulfstream has spent approximately Three Hundred and Seventy Thousand Dollars ($370,000.00) since January of 2014 in the legal fight against Martin O’Boyle and Christopher O’Hare dealing with their public records requests.  On February 12, 2015, the Town of Gulf Stream filed a federal RICO class action lawsuit against those individuals and others who have made more than Fifteen Hundred (1,500) public records requests to the Town.  The complaint alleges a scheme to defraud and extort the Town through the use of abusive public records requests.  The Town has asked the Court to award it treble damages, attorney’s fees and costs, and also enter “whatever orders the Court deems necessary to divesting the Defendants from their interest in the enterprise and imposing reasonable restrictions on the future activities or investments of the Defendants to prohibit them from engaging in a similar type endeavor.” 

4. Town of Gulf Stream, et al vs. Palm Beach County, and Sharon R. Bock, as Clerk and Comptroller of Palm Beach County, Intervenor
Case No. 502011CA017953XXXXMB.  Inspector General Funding Lawsuit.
Fourteen municipalities sued Palm Beach County challenging the method of funding for the Inspector General Program (the “OIG Program”).  The current funding method authorizes the Board of County Commissioners to set an amount the municipalities must pay for the OIG Program and to bill municipalities for that amount.  The municipalities contend that the current funding method is an unlawful tax and invades municipal home rule budgetary authority.  A three day non-jury trial regarding this matter commenced Tuesday, August 19, 2014.  The parties submitted proposed orders to Judge Brunson on September 2, 2014, and are awaiting a ruling.