Thursday, May 9, 2013

A Cautionary Tale for Environmental and Land Use Practitioners: Florida Supreme Court Declines to Review Environmental Organization Sanctions

Today, the Florida Supreme Court decided not to a review a 1st DCA decision sanctioning environmental organizations. Martin Cnty. Conservation Alliance v. Martin County, - So. 3d. -, 2013 WL 1908644, No. SC11-2455 (May 9, 2013), dismissing as improv. granted Martin Cnty. Conservation Alliance v. Martin Cnty., 73 So. 3d 856 (Fla. 1st DCA 2011) (original opinion revised on motion for rehearing). The Court originally accepted jurisdiction of the case on the grounds that the 1st DCA opinion expressly and directly contradicted with a decision by another district court of appeal. After further review, the Court determined that jurisdiction was improvidently granted and declined review of the case.

Keep in mind that, under Article V, Section 3 of Florida's Constitution, the Florida Supreme Court's jurisdiction is fairly limited. It has much stricter limitations on the cases it can hear than does the United States Supreme Court. In Florida, our court system has been set up so that the five district courts of appeal are the courts of last resort except in certain circumstances. This was not one of those circumstances.

That means the 1st DCA's opinion from 2011 is now final. As a reminder, I said previously that this case would be important to watch for anyone interested in environmental, land use, or administrative law in Florida. In a previous post, I explained:
[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 The court, on its own initiative, has since withdrawn that order and replaced it with one holding the appeal to be in violation of section 57.105(1), Florida Statutes, and imposing sanctions ....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.
For a much more in-depth analysis, see my review of the 1st DCA opinion in the April 2012 edition of the Florida Bar's Environmental & Land Use Law Section Reporter.

This case serves as a cautionary tale to environmental and land use practitioners--and their clients--that advocacy in support of a position can sometimes go too far. That's not to denigrate the advocates in this case. There were good lawyers on both sides of this issue. But it should certainly go into the calculus of thinking about cases now. Per the 1st DCA's order, the sanctions will now be borne in equal part by the environmental organizations and their attorneys.

EDIT 5/10/2013: Bruce Ritchie has an article up at the Florida Current about the decision.

EDIT 5/29/2013: I've made some slight adjustments in the article to indicate that the Florida Supreme Court actually dismissed the case as improvidently granted, meaning that it accepted the case for review, and after considering it further, declined to review it.