Legal Report, October 2015

General Counsel, Trela J. White

1. Fort Lauderdale v. Scott Israel; Case No. 4D15-1008 of the Florida Fourth District Court of Appeal. Sovereign Immunity.

Scott Israel, as Sheriff of Broward County (Sheriff), sued Fort Lauderdale over payment for police dispatch and other services. From 2009 until 2012, a written contract existed between the Sheriff and Fort Lauderdale for the provision of services, with payment by Broward County on behalf of Fort Lauderdale for services rendered. In 2011, Broward County told Fort Lauderdale it would stop funding services. The Sheriff threatened to cancel services unless Fort Lauderdale provided payment. Fort Lauderdale provided some, but not all, of the payments on an informal basis with no written contract with Fort Lauderdale.
The Sheriff filed suit and alleged breach of contract, unjust enrichment, and open account for the missing payments. Fort Lauderdale moved for summary judgment and claimed sovereign immunity barred the Sheriff’s claims in contract. Florida’s legislature has provided a limited waiver of sovereign immunity in tort claims (through section 768.28, Florida Statutes) but has not expressly waived sovereign immunity in contract claims. The lower court denied Fort Lauderdale’s motion for summary judgement and held Fort Lauderdale was not entitled to sovereign immunity. Fort Lauderdale appealed to Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeal.
The Florida Fourth District Court of Appeal held that a municipality waives sovereign immunity only when it enters into an express (i.e., written) contract; in the context of an implied contract, sovereign immunity protection is not waived. The Court’s rationale was based on a line of cases that discuss the defense of sovereign immunity in express and implied contract actions. This holding was notable as it presented one of the first instances where the Court applied the distinction to common law contract actions.

2. R. Lee Smith, et al. vs. City of Jacksonville; Case No SC15-534 of the Florida Supreme Court. Bert J. Harris, Jr. Private Property Rights Protection Act (the Harris Act)

This case was first reported on in the June 2015 Legal Report and involved the Smith’s claim that a Jacksonville ordinance, which allowed Jacksonville’s property that abutted the Smith’s property to be used as a fire station, inordinately burdened their property. (Jacksonville’s use of the property was originally limited to use of the property as recreation and enjoyment areas for County employees and the Smith’s intended to market their property as a luxury home site.) The Florida First District Court of Appeal ruled in favor of Jacksonville; opined that for an action to be maintained under the Harris Act, the government action must be directly applied to a claimant’s property; and certified the following question: may a property owner maintain an action pursuant to the Harris Act if that owner has not had a law, regulation, or ordinance directly applied to the owner’s property which restricts or limits the use of the property?
In May, the Florida Supreme Court accepted jurisdiction of this case as a matter of great public importance. The outcome of the case will be notable. Although it will not be surprising if the Court affirms the decision of the lower court, if the Court answers the question in the affirmative it could mean, as the First DCA opined, “a cataclysmic change in the law of regulatory takings which common sense dictates the legislature would not have intended [.]” The case is in the briefing stage. We will continue to monitor this case.

3. Jeffrey Marcus Gray vs. Lutheran Social Services of Northeast Florida, Inc. (LSS); Case No. 1D14-5793 of the Florida First District Court of Appeal. Public Records

The full details of this case are contained in the January 2015 Legal Report. 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 trial court denied Gray’s complaint, which sought attorney’s fees and costs. Gray filed an appeal with the First District Court of Appeal. The briefing is complete and the parties are waiting on an oral argument date. We will continue to monitor this case.

4. Parker et al. vs. American Traffic Solutions, Inc. et al.; Case No. 1:14-cv-24010-FAM of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida. Red Light Cameras

As a result of the outcome of City of Hollywood, etc. v. Eric Arem case, which was reported in the June 2015 Legal Report, class action lawsuits were filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida against eighty-one towns, the Florida Department of Revenue, and private red light camera operators.  The lawsuits were consolidated and Plaintiffs seek reimbursement of fines assessed against motorists by red light camera programs. Plaintiffs allege the fines were unlawful.  At stake is over $200 million in fines.
Of note, the district court has held that the drivers’ claims of unjust enrichment (quasi-contract) are not barred by sovereign immunity.  The local governments filed an appeal to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit from the order determining that they were not entitled to sovereign immunity protections. The district court, on its own initiative, entered an order staying the proceedings pending resolution of the appeal.  The local governments asked the court to reconsider its order, but were denied. The appeal is still pending and the municipalities’ briefs were due on October 5, 2015. We will continue to monitor this case.

5. Town of Gulf Stream, et al. vs. Palm Beach County, et al.; Case No. 4D15-1753 of the Florida Fourth District Court of Appeal. Inspector General Funding Lawsuit

Fourteen municipalities sued Palm Beach County (the County) challenging the method of funding for the Office of Inspector General (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.
On March 16, 2015, the trial court entered a Final Judgment in favor of Palm Beach County.  The case has been appealed to the Florida Fourth District Court of Appeal. The Florida League of Cities motion for amicus curiae status on behalf of the municipalities was granted in late-August. The municipalities’ initial brief and appendix was filed on October 14, 2015 and the municipalities have requested oral argument. We will continue to monitor this case.

City of Jacksonville v. Smith, 159 So. 3d 888, 891 (Fla. 1st DCA 2015)

Parker et al. v. American Traffic Solutions, Inc. et al., No. 15-13721, (11th Cir. filed Aug. 19, 2015).