Sunday, December 16, 2007

First DCA - Circuit Court can't Apply Equitable Estoppel in Cert Review

In Clay County v. Kendall Land Development, Inc., the First District quashed a circuit court decision that overturned a local concurrency-based denial on estoppel grounds.

This is one of those cases where the facts may disguise the real problem. Clay County has a fairly restrictive concurrency provision, and a concurrency certificate issued for a plat application has to be "vested" by gaining preliminary plat approval within 6 months and final plat approval within 2 years. The developer got a concurrency certificate, but didn't get the preliminary plat done within 6 months (which was December 2004), basically claiming that it could keep its certificate by meeting only the latter condition. One of its employees queried the County in January 2005 (after or on the preliminary plat deadline) and a general "OK' on the concurrency issue. As the platting process moved forward, the developer was told that concurrency would be a problem. The difference: fair share payments of over $600,000 instead of just below $192,000.

The developer administratively appealed the determination that it did not have concurrency and would have to pay the higher amount and lost. The circuit court, however, found that the county had misapplied the law of estoppel and should have been estopped by the January 2005 to the limited extent that the County was required to allow the developer to proceed based upon the fair share that would have been due then, if the developer had been told to reapply in January rather than in September 2006 when the whole issue came to light.

Now, there are bad facts here for estoppel law, but the circuit court was trying to do fundamental justice on the basis that if the developer lost the opportunity to apply for a new concurrency certificate when it would have been much cheaper because the County appeared to go along with its interpretation of the timing requirement.

The Fifth District has none of it. Repeatedly indicating that it was dealing with "an experienced developer," the District court destroys the lower court's jurisdiction to deal with equitable issues that are mishandled at the administrative level:

As we have noted, one “clearly established principle of law” is that, on first-tier certiorari review, a circuit court is limited to determining whether the administrative findings and judgment are supported by competent substantial evidence. Whether the record also contains competent substantial evidence that would support some other result is irrelevant. E.g., Dusseau v. Metro. Dade County Bd. of County Comm’rs, 794 So. 2d 1270, 1275 (Fla. 2001) (quoting from Fla. Power & Light Co. v. City of Dania, 761 So. 2d 1089, 1093 (Fla. 2000)); G.B.V. Int’l, 787 So. 2d at 845; Educ. Dev. Ctr., Inc. v. City of West Palm Beach Zoning Bd. of Appeals, 541 So. 2d 106, 108 (Fla. 1989). Here, rather than merely determining whether the hearing
officer’s findings that Kendale did not reasonably rely on the January 2005
misstatement by the Chief Planner or any other act or omission of the County
and his decision that Kendale had failed to prove entitlement to the defense
of equitable estoppel were supported by competent substantial evidence, the
trial court conducted an independent review of the record, concluding that
competent substantial evidence supported a conclusion that the County was
equitably estopped to deny Kendale a CRC. This constituted “a violation of a
clearly established principle of law resulting in a miscarriage of justice” and, therefore, a departure from the essential requirements of law. G.B.V. Int’l, 787 So. 2d at 845; Fla. Power & Light Co. v. City of Dania, 761 So. 2d 1089, 1093 (Fla. 2000).

We have also noted that another “clearly established principle of law” is that, when
considering a petition for writ of certiorari, a court has only two options--it may either deny the petition or grant it, and quash the order at which the petition is directed. G.B.V. Int’l, 787 So. 2d at 843-44 (citing cases). The court may not enter any judgment on the merits of the underlying controversy, or direct the lower
tribunal to enter any particular order. Id. Here, the trial court entered judgment on the merits, fashioning what it believed to be an equitable remedy. This, too, constituted “a violation of a clearly established principle of law resulting in a miscarriage of justice” and, therefore, a departure from the essential requirements of law. G.B.V. Int’l, 787 So. 2d at 845; Fla. Power & Light Co., 761 So. 2d at 1093.
The problem is that the lower court was actually saying that the hearing officer misconstrued the scope of his authority to deal with the equitable estoppel claim made by the developer and therefore departed from the essential requirements of law in not providing appropriate relief.

That kind of determination requires the reviewing court to examine the record closely to see if it was applied properly to the law. This is a particular problem when (a) equitable principles -which are inherently fact based-- are involved, and (b) where there are confusing or overlapping legal principles. Under the First District's holding, it doesn't matter if the lower tribunal got the law wrong so long as there is competent substantial evidence to support its decision under the wrong legal interpretation.

This difficult (crazy?) result flows from the simple fact that certiorari is flatly insufficient to provide the "one means of effective judicial review" that due process guarantees.

Said it once, said it twice and again. We need a statute providing effective judicial review under the model of 120.68, and we also need a statute that provides minimum standards for the conduct of local hearings and the issuance of administrative orders.

PRACTICE TIP: Get your case out of the administrative process and into circuit court as a declaratory or injunctive action. In this case, for example, the developer could have filed a declaratory action to determine the scope of the ability of the hearing officer to consider and apply equitable estoppel principles, and arguably to estopp the county (note: equitable powers per se are beyond the jurisdication and power of admininstrative officers).

It was the inadquacy of cert review and the resulting multiplicity of suits on different grounds under the pre-1972 APA that led to its amendment and the provision of the "rich arsenal of remedies" under the modern act. It very well may be that only an explosion of suits in circuit court attacking the jurisdiction of local boards, the processes in local ordinances, asking local procedures to be determined inadequate, and suing for prohibition, quo waranto and related writs will demonstrate the clear need for legislative reform.

This is not a "pro-developer" or "pro-neighbor" issue: noone gets a fair shake under the current system.

Finally, be aware: In the last year we've seen two cases that involved concurrency and fair share issues-this case and the D.R. Horton case from Jacksonville . They are the tip of the iceberg. Local governments statewide refuse to either fund their adopted level of service or lower them to affordable levels. The state's funding for non-SIES roads is dramatically inadequate. In the next two years we will see concurrency become a political and economic crisis on the scale of the 2004 hurrican season, and the result is going to be hundreds of lawsuits.

Supremes: No, really, Memos by Government Attorneys are Public Records unless Expressly Exempted!

Lightbourne v. McCollum, ---- So.2d ----, 32 Fla. L Weekly S707 (Fla. Nov. 1, 2007).

In the process of determining that Florida’s amended rules governing lethal injection must fail once again before a condemned prisoner can complain of 8th Amendment violations, the Florida Supreme Court struck a blow for public records in a situation that demonstrates exactly why the efforts of the State and Local Government Section to eviscerate the rules, must be stopped.
At issue were two memos by an assistant general counsel that related facts regarding earlier litigation involving inmates that had already been executed. The memos also had been previously disclosed.

The issue was clear: the memos contained documentation regarding alternative means of assessing the state of consciousness of a person being executed and other facts relevant to the issue, including evaluations of techniques that had not been adopted by the state. That is, the memos demonstrated that the state knew of alternatives that it was not adopting and the arguments for their use.

The State claimed that because they were prepared for litigation, they were subject to attorney-client privilege or work-product privilege.

The Court found that the public records law was to be broadly construed and exemptions narrowly construed. The Court noted that documents prepared by a government attorney are exempt only when (a) they contain the attorney’s mental impressions, litigation strategy or legal theory AND (b) are prepared exclusively for litigation or anticipation for imminent ligation, AND (c) that any exemption exists only until the conslusion of the litigation or the execution of the sentence.

Applying these rules, the court found that (1) the contents were largely factual and did not disclose litigation strategy (2) the memos on their face did not apply or pertain to particular pending litigation and (3) that if they were prepared for the litigation indicated, the exclusion died with the inmates. The court then looked at the County’s assertion that the document should be excluded because any disclosure had been inadvertent. The Court noted that some courts had held that any disclosure waives a privilege while others had applied a “relevant circumstances” test. Without holding that Florida would, does, or will follow the “relevant circumstances” test, the Court noted that the state had not provided that it had taken reasonable precautions against release, or that the interests of justice would be served by suppressing the documents. The Court therefore held that the privilege would have been waived, if it had existed.

These are critical issues for all private sector/public interest attorneys to recognize (and local government attorneys to respect).

Certiorari - Know Your Local Rules!

Byle v. Pasco County, --- So.2d -----, 32 Fla. L. Weekly D2450 (Fla. 2d DCA Oct. 12, 2007).
Jimenez v. Eloise Rateni, --- So.2d ---, 32 Fla. L. Weekly D2674 (Fla. 2d DCA Nov. 9, 2007).

Both of these cases involve violations of local rules by the circuit court in dealing with cert petitions. In Byle, the local rules call for a three-judge panel, but a single judge dismissed his petition for cert based on lack of standing. The Second District held that “Because the Sixth Judicial Circuit has promulgated a rule requiring three-judge panels to decide petitions seeking review of admininstrative action, Byle was deprived of procedural due process when a single judge ruled on his petition.”

In Jimenez, the local rules in the 12th Circuit provide that “all county court civil appeals shall be randomly assigned to lettered divisions of the Civil Division.” The lettered divisions in the 12th Circuit consequently go through all three counties in the circuit, and the petitioner claimed that the appeals filed in any given county had to be randomly assigned to a judge in a civil division, regardless of which county the judge was assigned to. The Chief Judge disagreed, interpreting the rule to be limited by the filing county. The Second District agreed with the petitioner that the language of the local rule requires a random assignment to any judge in the circuit, and that the denial of the right to such a random assignment was material harm that was irreparable on later review.

Madness and Mayhem in Ft Lauderdale - Stranahan I

Stranahan House, Inc. et al v. City of Ft. Lauderdale, 32 Fla. L. Weekly D2702a (Fla. 4th DCA November 14, 2007).

This case is a must read for anyone involved in litigating and settling land use cases because it clarifies principles of how to settle without accidentally “contracting away the police power.”
As indicated above, developer bought a developed site and a piece of undeveloped land that was adjacent to Stranahan House – a designated historic resource. The developer filed a site plan under the then-current regulations (1999 version). The City tried to buy the undeveloped land through eminent domain, and the developer counter-claimed for damages and for a declaration that the site plan was consistent with the regulations.

The court granted summary judgment against the condemnation for failure to demonstrate a public necessity and also ultimately determined that the developer could maintain the declaratory action. Eventually there was a settlement. The Settlement was discussed at a non-public hearing and then subject to a public hearing that appears to have allowed public comment

The day after the City Commission approved the Settlement Agreement, the Court approved the Final Consent Judgement. The judgment included findings that the site plan complied with the zoning code and comprehensive plan, that the site plan was compatible with the surrounding area (including Stranahan House). In addition, the Judgement recognized, in accordance with the Settlement (a) that ordinances had changed, (b) that it was in everyone’s interest for the developer to file an amended site plan that provided for a plaza, (c) that the site plan would be reviewed under the 1999 regulations, and (d) that the City would expedite that review, and allow the project to proceed under the original site plan if the amended site plan were not approved.

The developer filed the amended site plan, which was reviewed by the DRC, the Planning and Zoning Board, and the City Commission.

Stranahan House filed a cert petition attacking the approval of the first site plan as illegal contract zoning under Chung v. Sarasota County and because the process did not include a hearing before the City, DRC and Z & P Board. It filed a cert petition attacking the second site plan (and a separate 163.3215 petition – see above) on the basis that the Board did not afford interested parties due process, the site plan was not submitted to the historic preservation board, the City failed to apply the 2005 zoning requirements and the site plan did not comply with those requirements.

The circuit court consolidated the two petitions and denied them. In denying the first petition, finding that the approval of the settlement under these terms did not abrogate the legislative standards of the zoning code, complied with the zoning code, and was made in good faith. Because the settlement required compliance with the zoning code, it did not constitute contract zoning. It also concluded that the approval of the second site plan comported with due process and the decision was supported by competent substantial evidence. Implicitly, the circuit court found that the Settlement Agreement could provide for the application of the earlier zoning regulations without being contract zoning.

The Fourth DCA upheld the circuit court.

Notably, the Fourth District found that the failure to attack the Judgment, but to instead attack the site plan approval through certiorari, was fatal because the Judgment – which essentially approved the first site plan – was not a development order. The Court noted that under applicable precedents, Stranahan House could have moved for post-judgment intervention for that purpose.

Also notably, the Fourth District held that it did not have jurisdiction to review the circuit court’s determination that Stranahan House did not receive due process before the DRC and City because their ability to present extensive testimony was limited. The Court found the circuit court had applied the right law in evaluating this claim, and that it would not second-guess the lower court’s decision.

Finally, the Fourth District found that the circuit court had applied the correct law in considering the 1999 zoning regulations rather than the 2005 regulations, because the Judgment called for them.

What we don’t know is what would have happened if Stranahan House had intervened in the fight between the developer and the City, and had appealed the Judgment. Would the Court have determined that the judgment could not alter the terms of the applicable zoning regulations? Would it have found that the approval of a site plan through that process was improper? We don’t know, though I suspect not.

madness in Fort Lauderdale – Collateral Estoppel, Consistency and other Suits - Stranahan II (but the first decided)

Stranahan House, Inc., et al v. City of Ft. Lauderdale, 32 Fla. L. Weekly D2591a (Fla. 4th DCA October 31, 2007).

Warning: you may want to read Stranahan I, which perversely was released 2 weeks later, before trying to make sense of this.

In this case, the Court allows a group representing a neighboring property to go forward with a “consistency challenge” under § 163.3215 to the approval of an amended site plan approved by the City of Ft. Lauderdale. The critical issue in this challenge involves policies regarding historic preservation. The building involved was to be built on lands adjacent to the historic Stranahan House that had been the subject of a failed attempt by the City to purchase for “park purposes” (read—stop development) with Stranahan’s supporters committing funds.
As will be seen below, the effort to buy the land not only failed, but resulted in other litigation and settlements between the developer and the City. When, pursuant to the settlement, the City approved the site plan, the citizens/Stranahan House sued on several fronts, including the consistency challenge.

The City argued, and the circuit court agreed, that the core issues of consistency had been argued previously in the earlier, settled suit. The Fourth District rejected this, in part because the pleadings in the earlier case were not part of the record. [BIG HINT – it appears the same judge heard multiple suits, and the parties argued the merits of the earlier suit to the judge without putting them into the record by notice – if you have to argue collateral estoppel or other similar issues, put the other pleadings into the record]

The circuit court also found that Stranahan House was precluded from litigating this issue against the City because the agreement it had with the City in the attempt to buy/condemn the land, authorized the City to act for it. The City argued that the settlement was an outgrowth of that action and that, just as the City was bound, the plaintiffs were bound by the City’s action. The Fourth District rejected this theory of agency under the terms of the agreement, found that the plaintiffs had standing under the statute, and let it proceed.

HOWEVER – given that the plaintiffs had unsuccessfully argued earlier that any use of the property violated the historic preservation policies of the plan (and that the site was outside the historic district protected by the policies), it seems unlikely that they will prevail when the plan goes back to the judge. Their real efforts were to kill the site plan as illegal, which was rejected in the second case.

The Second DCA and Preemption – Home Rule over Legislative Intent

Sec. of State Kurt Browning, et. al. v. Muntz, et. al., 32 Fla. L. Weekly D2573a (Fla. 2d DCA October 31, 2007).

The Second DCA determined that amendments to the Sarasota County Charter that included provisions for the auditing and counting of ballots, were preempted by the Florida Election Code. Right enough. What’s distressing is how long it took the Court to get there, and the arguments raised by the dissent.

The Florida Constitution directs the Legislature regulate elections, and this has been held mandatory. The purpose of the Florida Election Code (Chapters 97 through 106, Florida Statutes) is to “obtain and maintain uniformity in the interpretation and implementation of the election laws.”

I don’t know how much more the Legislature ought to have to say in order to preempt an area from local regulation. If the Legislature intends uniform laws, then local regulation on the same subject is clearly inconsistent with that intent. But the Second District several years ago, in Phantom of Clearwater v. Pinellas County, allowed local regulation in an area where the Legislature had dictated uniform laws, finding that such an intent was insufficient to create express preemption. In this case, the Court required pages of analysis to determine that the Election Code was such a “pervasive” regulation that the Court would apply doctrines of “implied preemption” to hold the charter amendment inconsistent with state law. Moreover, the dissent complains that under Phantom, the Court should have upheld the charter amendment.

The dissent may be right, and it indicates the dismal state of preemption law in Florida, that gives more credence to home rule than to reasonable interpretation of legislative intent to preempt it. The Legislature should not have to use “magic words” to preempt local regulation. The Legsilature is the supreme law and the courts should pay more heed to legislative intent than murky concepts of home rule. The courts should go back to the old doctrines that local governments may not proscribe what the state expressly permits and that when the Legislature provides a process for taking action, that process must be followed and respected.
Either that, or the Legislature should adopt broad language preempting wholesale areas of regulation to itself and limiting the scope of local home rule. Touche’.

NOTE - This case has been accepted for review by the Florida Supreme Court. Briefs are due on December 26? and oral argument will be held in May. Wish I'd had time to request permission to file an amicus brief.

The Madness Never Stops! More fun on the Miami River

Durham Park Neighborhood Association, Inc. et al v. City of Miami, 32 Fla. L. Weekly D2538a (Fla. 3d DCA October 24, 2007), again involves small scale FLUM amendments adopted by the City of Miami. Here, the challenge to the amendment went to the ALJ, who found that the petitioners where collaterally estopped by the ALJ’s rulings in the related cases. Given that the 3d DCA reversed the other cases, it overturned the ALJ on that issue and remanded the matter for action consistent with its other rulings.