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South Miami board member ordered to turn over emails in $26 million suit

A federal magistrate judge on Wednesday ordered a member of South Miami’s planning board to request thousands of emails from Yahoo! to turn over to an IT company as part of a lawsuit between the city and an affordable housing development company.

While it was unclear why the company wanted her emails, its attorneys were willing to take the dispute to court when she refused to comply.

Metro South Senior Apartments – whose parent company builds low-income housing for federal tax credits – is suing the city in federal court alleging violations of the Fair Housing Act and Americans with Disabilities Act. Metro South claims the city discriminated against the elderly and disabled by blocking the development the company intended to build on Sunset Drive across from City Hall. The proposed project was an eight-story, 91-unit, mixed-use, low-income rental apartment complex for seniors. Now Metro South is seeking more than $26 million in damages.

The company also filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development alleging discriminatory housing practices under the Fair Housing Act. HUD is investigating the complaint and refused to comment while the investigation remains open.

As part of the lawsuit, Metro South has sought emails from more than a dozen city officials using a long list of search terms. Some of the more than two dozen search terms in the subpoenas include “Beneficial,” “Cal,” “low income,” “tax credits,” “Metro” and “Senior.”

Metro South has used a third-party IT company, Credence IT Solutions, to help it access and search the emails remotely after commissioners gave the company the passwords to their accounts. In May, Commissioner Valerie Newman was ordered to request all of her deleted emails since Jan. 1, 2011 from Google’s back-up servers to deliver to Credence.

Much like Newman, planning board member Yvonne Beckman will have to request Yahoo! turn over all of her emails since Jan. 1, 2011 to Credence. Beckman’s account has been deactivated and reactivated more than once since that date, resulting in her inability to access emails from before August 2012. If Yahoo! does not respond quickly enough, Beckman will have to turn over her email credentials to Credence, so Credence can perform the search on the available emails.

The city originally objected to the subpoena on the grounds that the search could violate HIPAA because Beckman is a nurse.

While Beckman said the search “is so broad it’s not to be believed,” Magistrate Judge Andrea M. Simonton said the search was tailored narrowly enough to avoid problems with HIPAA because of three layers of protections: The searches will only include emails between Beckman and certain city officials, will be limited to emails responsive to the search terms in the subpoena and will allow for the city attorney to review the emails so he can remove personal, irrelevant or confidential information.

“Obviously if Ms. Beckman is communicating with (Mayor Philip) Stoddard about play dates for their pets, those emails would not be included,” Simonton said.

Simonton said she was sensitive to people’s privacy and that she understood Beckman’s reluctance to comply but added that a lot of people don’t recognize how their emails can become public records.

“My order today requires her to produce any and all electronically stored public communications in her possession” that meet the terms in the subpoena, Simonton said.

Beckman told the Miami Herald after the hearing that she was saddened by the results but will comply.

Metro South’s attorneys “are going on a fishing expedition,” Beckman said.

“I don’t care what they say, that they’re going to use the utmost discretion,” she said. “You know that never happens.”

“They can build a lot of affordable housing for all the money they’re spending on litigation,” Beckman said.

Beckman, who moved to the United States from the Netherlands more than 40 years ago when she was 23, said that when she earned her citizenship, the keynote speaker was a judge who told her that part of the freedom of living in America meant participating in local government.

“I took that really to heart,” Beckman said. Now Beckman is worried those citizens who have also been subpoenaed for their emails, including several other planning board members, will be reluctant to participate in local government in the future “because they think their whole life is going to be turned upside-down by these weird requests.”

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