Sunday, June 3, 2012

Florida Supreme Court Grants Review of Decision Sanctioning Environmental Organizations

The Florida Supreme Court has granted review of a 1st DCA decision sanctioning environmental organizations. See Martin Cnty. Conservation Alliance v. Martin Cnty., 73 So. 3d 856 (Fla. 1st DCA 2011) (original opinion revised on motion for rehearing). This case will be one to watch for anyone interested in environmental, land use, or administrative law in Florida. Any decision will have implications for the costs of doing business in Florida.

I recently summarized the Martin County case in the Florida Bar's Environmental & Land Use Section Reporter, explaining how the main issue was whether the Martin County Conservation Alliance should have asked an appellate court to review the administrative decision below:
[The Alliance] challenged two ordinances amending the Martin County comprehensive plan .... The Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) concluded the amendments would not cause environmental harm, and the Department of Community Affairs affirmed via issuance of an “in compliance” final order. The appellants appealed, but the First DCA dismissed the appeal for lack of standing, and it ordered appellants to show cause why sanctions should not be imposed for filing an appeal where appellate standing was lacking. The court, on its own initiative, has since withdrawn that order and replaced it with one holding the appeal to be in violation of section 57.105(1), Florida Statutes, and imposing sanctions .... Consequently, the First DCA imposed sanctions, stating that by advancing legal positions unsupported by material facts or law, appellants were statutorily subject to section 57.105 sanctions.
The arguments the parties will make are foreshadowed in their jurisdictional briefs. The Alliance argued that environmental advocacy will be chilled:
The Decision, over a strong dissent, and with 6 judges voting to rehear the case en banc, sanctioned non-profit organizations for appealing an agency's rulings on the proper legal interpretation of comprehensive plan changes. The Decision is of exceptional importance, as it unduly limits the ability to seek appellate redress of a wide variety of administrative agency and other [stet]. The purpose of deterring baseless litigation must be carefully counter-balanced against protecting all citizens' rights of access to the courts. See Read v. Taylor, 832 So. 2d 219, 222 (Fla. 4th DCA 2002). Here, the Dissent expressed a deep concern over the Decision's chilling effect on good faith efforts to seek appellate redress by parties without deep pockets, and the potential denial of the Florida Constitution's right of access to courts. Decision at 37 -38. (Van Nortwick, J. Dissenting).The Decision may ensure that no citizen will ever again initiate legal remedies that the Legislature has established regarding environmental and land use matters. Such cases often present close issues, as the nuances between the majority and dissenting decisions in this case demonstrate. Few, if any, parties with legitimate claims would dare embark on such an action if the result of not prevailing on the merits is a punitive assessment of attorney's fees. Petitioners urge the Court to accept jurisdiction to reconcile the identified conflicts.
Martin County, however, argued that the decision was well-reasoned and unexceptional:
The district court’s decision imposing sanctions on Petitioners and their attorney does not “expressly and directly” conflict with a prior decision of this Court or another district court “on the same question of law.” Neither of the two “species” of such “holding conflict” jurisdiction is present here .... The district court’s decision simply involves a sound exercise of its discretion, imposing sanctions under section 57.105(1), Florida Statutes, because Petitioners and their attorney knew (or should have known) that the record below clearly showed they had not presented any evidence that their own interests would be “adversely affected” by the challenged amendments to the Martin County comprehensive plan, and thus Petitioners lacked standing to appeal the state agency’s final order approving adoption of the amendments. See 120.68, Fla. Stat.
The online docket reports that the Court accepted jurisdiction and dispensed with oral argument. The Alliance must serve its brief on the merits by June 5, 2012. Afterwards, the respondents get 20 days to respond, and then the Alliance gets 20 days to reply. This means that the case will be fully briefed by mid-July, assuming no extensions are granted. A number of organizations are intending to write amicus curiae briefs, including Disability Rights Florida, Inc., Florida Legal Services, Southern Legal Counsel, Inc., Florida Wildlife Federation, and the Florida Chapter of the American Planning Association.

Stay tuned. I'll be commenting once the briefs are in.