As almost always, there’s more there than meets the eye.

Law students find different aspects of law school attractive.  For some it is the camaraderie of other intelligent people.  For some it is the strenuous intellectual challenge.

For me, it was the stories.  Each case you read in school, in addition to whatever legal principles are at stake,  involves a microcosm of humanity engaged in, well, being human.  And generally speaking, many of the best legal stories end up in the law school books.

A case that the Supreme Court scheduled for oral argument the first day of next term is just the sort of story I love.

On the surface, it is a maritime law case.  I was originally immediately smitten by the original case name, City of Riviera Beach v. That certain unnamed, gray, two story vessel approximately 57 feet in length, now known as Lozman v. City of Riviera Beach. Since it is a maritime case, the city sued the houseboat itself for dockage and other fees. (I find the concept of suing an inanimate object — something which happens more frequently than most people imagine, I suspect — to be bizarre, even though I understand why it is used.)  The question before the Court is whether the houseboat was legally a vessel (and yes, the past tense is correct here), which would have brought it under federal maritime regulations rather than property which would have made it subject to state landlord-tenant law. (The city has already sued under the latter, and lost.)

It’s an important question: there are classes of structures (floating casinos and houseboats just to name two) which are moored to the land and float on the water but which are in no way designed to provide transportation.  There is a split among circuits about whether such structures are vessels. There are a variety of interests filing amicus briefs on either side.

The case is about determining when a floating structure is a vessel; the story is about corruption and greed and potential retribution on one side and possible passionate grandstanding on the other.

Fane Lozman possessed a houseboat — relatively sturdy, too, since it survived Hurricane Wilma — and a fighting spirit. Fane opted to live in Riviera Beach, which The Huffington Post categorizes as one of the poorest coastal communities in South Florida.  Lozman was opposed to an extensive waterfront development plan that had been passed in a secret meeting just before Governor Charlie Crist signed a bill outlawing use of eminent domain for private redevelopment (see my rant about Kelo v. New London)  — and sued to stop it.  Lozman was successful in his crusade, managing to get the plan killed. Not only that, four councilmen ended up being indicted as a result of his activities.

The city didn’t take this lightly.  It tried to evict him, arguing among other things that his ten-pound dachshund was a public menace.  Lozman successfully sued the city, claiming that the efforts to get rid of him were retribution; he reputedly ended up settling with for $200,000.

But the city wasn’t done. They then demanded that he register his houseboat as a vessel, and assessed him $3,000 in dockage fees. When he did not pay up (Lozman claims the city refused to cash his checks), the city sued him — the houseboat, actually — under maritime law, and won. Lozman lost at both the District and Circuit Court level.

It is what they city did next that takes my breath away.  The District Court judge ordered the … property … to be sold.  Remember, the case was still winding its way through the courts.  The city did so, and purchased the property. And destroyed it.  With, admittedly, the blessing of both the District Court and the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals

All of which means that even if Fane Lozman wins this case, his home is lost forever.  I can see no way that this is not retribution for Lozman pursuing this case to the Supreme Court.  If nothing else, the city has acted in a manner guaranteed to serve notice to other would-be do-gooders that they are not people to be trifled with.

The fact that the houseboat was destroyed was simply mentioned in a single sentence in the petitioner’s brief, as if it were of no consequence.  The Court, quite understandably, has responded by requiring the parties to file briefs explaining why the case should not simply be dismissed as moot: good question, as the houseboat was destroyed before the case ever went to the Circuit Court.

This entire episode has an “only in Florida” feel to it, somehow, but I know that’s not true. Greed — and the lure of unscrupulous development — can be found wherever there is an unprotected shoreline.

And wherever people are people.

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