Two months after the U.S. Supreme Court handed Fane Lozman a huge victory in his long-running legal battle with Riviera Beach, another court on Monday paved the way for the fervent activist to seek millions from the city for his troubles.
The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated a 2008 lawsuit Lozman filed against the city, claiming it repeatedly violated his civil rights by hiring a private investigator to trail him, kicking him out of public meetings and, at one point, having him arrested when he refused to leave.
“Today felt just a tad lower than winning at the Supreme Court,” said Lozman, who now lives in Miami Beach and once lived in North Bay Village. “The Supreme Court ruling was a 10. Today was a 9 ½.”
City officials didn’t return emails or phone calls for comment about their latest loss to the former Marine who became a thorn in their sides shortly after docking his unconventional floating home at the city marina in 2006.
But, while the high court’s ruling may have stung more, the 11th Circuit’s could be more costly.
When the nation’s high court in January ruled that the city improperly used ancient maritime law to seize and ultimately destroy Lozman’s 60-foot two-story floating home, the possible damages were somewhat fixed. City officials were faced with the prospect of paying Lozman for the $167,000 he claims it would cost to replace his home, the $300,000 he spent for attorneys and an undetermined amount to reimburse him for the money he shelled out for living expenses after his home was destroyed.
However, he said, if he succeeds in proving that the city violated his constitutional rights, the damages could skyrocket.
“If I was the city, I’d be concerned,” he said. “That’s a seven-figure sum.”
While the two lawsuits are separate, they are intertwined. Both are a result of what Lozman claims was a multi-pronged campaign to punish him for publicly blasting the now defunct multibillion-dollar plan to turn the blighted city into an upscale yachting mecca, he said. Their anger intensified when he, in 2009, convinced a judge that the city had violated the state’s Sunshine Law by not keeping minutes of agenda review meetings.
In an effort to silence him, he claims, city officials set about trying to get rid of him. First, they tried to evict him from his home by filing suit in state court. When that failed, they decided his home was a boat and convinced a federal judge they could seize it under maritime law.
Noting that calling a floating home a boat would wreak havoc with the nation’s multifaceted marine industry, the high court in January ruled that Lozman’s so-called “floating shack” was not a boat and shouldn’t have been treated as such.
While the decision was mentioned by the 11th Circuit when it reinstated another lawsuit Lozman filed against the city, its decision turned on procedural matters. In their ruling, the three-judge panel said U.S. District Judge Daniel Hurley erred in 2011 when he threw out Lozman’s suit, ruling that the allegations already had been addressed in state court.
“The fact that all of Lozman’s claims fall within a broad set of facts related to his interaction with the city does not prevent him from bringing separate suits based on separate allegations of wrongful conduct,” the 11th Circuit wrote.
Lozman, who now lives in Miami but still watches Riviera Beach closely from afar, said he was confident he would be allowed to pursue claims that the city violated his constitutional rights.
“To have a government target someone because they were trying to exercise their First Amendment rights is unconscionable,” he said. But, he said, it’s equally offensive that the city has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees trying to crush him.
“It goes to show that this city will lay off employees, force them to take furlough days,” he said, “but yet they will continue to waste money going after me in this vindictive battle.”