When Riviera Beach seized and later destroyed Fane Lozman’s floating home, no one expected it would create a legal battle that will have profound implications for the nation’s maritime industry.
The U.S. Supreme Court is taking up the case on Monday, spurred by Lozman, a self-described “corruption fighter” who made his fortune in the commodities trade and his reputation for activism in North Bay Village and Riviera Beach.
At issue is whether a floating structure that is indefinitely moored, receives power and other utilities from shore and is not intended to be used in maritime transportation or commerce constitutes a “vessel” under the U.S. Code of Laws, thus triggering federal maritime jurisdiction.
Depending on which way the Supreme Court rules, such floating structures could be subject to either state or federal laws, which vary broadly. The determination will affect such issues as property taxes, building code requirements, certain protections under foreclosure, as well as workmen’s compensation and other employment laws for those who live and work on the water, including on floating restaurants and casinos.
Among the implications: owners of floating homes usually must pay property taxes, as Lozman did, while those owning vessels under federal maritime law do not.
In addition, the standards differ on what kinds and amounts of damages can be awarded in personal injury lawsuits. And there are different federal rules for employment disputes and compensation for workers injured on the job.
Attorneys for Lozman, a former Chicago commodities and options trader, who says he now lives in both North Bay Village and Miami Beach, will argue that his home was not a vessel under Florida law, and therefore not subject to federal laws, in the case that seeks to overturn an 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling.
On the other side, Riviera Beach’s attorney, David C. Frederick, a partner at Kellogg, Huber, Hansen, Todd, Evans & Figel in Washington, D.C., and an adjunct professor at the University of Texas School of Law, will argue that Lozman’s home was in fact a vessel.
“Our position is that houseboats like Mr. Lozman’s have uniformly been held to be vessels, and the Supreme Court should also rule that way,” said Frederick, reached in his office on Sunday as he prepared for the oral arguments.
Lozman seemingly lost his six-year battle with Riviera Beach when his home was hauled away in 2009 by court order and later destroyed by the city in 2010. But Lozman refused to give up, claiming officials vindictively and illegally targeted him for eviction from the city’s marina because of his vocal opposition to a major redevelopment plan.
Lozman has spent more than $100,000 in attorney’s fees to pursue the case, spurred, in part, by anger.
“This was my home, and not only did they destroy my home, but they destroyed my furniture, too,” he said Sunday from Washington, D.C. “And I felt like I had an obligation to my fellow homeowners around the country to fight this out to see that they will never have to go through the horror show I did in the federal district court system.”
Riviera Beach may have underestimated Lozman, 51, a former Marine Corps officer, who has been a city activist and “corruption fighter” for at least a decade.