Billboard lawsuit against Doral to move forward in June

An SDE Media billboard in Doral off Florida’s Turnpike.
An SDE Media billboard in Doral off Florida’s Turnpike. SDE MEDIA

A Miami-Dade County judge ruled Thursday morning that a lawsuit between the city of Doral and a billboard company will move forward.

The legal dispute between the city and SDE Media began in June 2015. The billboard company sued the city and the council after the council rejected a request to put a billboard on the northwest corner of the Palmetto Expressway and Northwest 36th Street, which has some of the heaviest traffic in Doral.

Doral’s legal team argued that a trial wasn’t needed and asked the judge to rule without one. Attorneys for SDE Media argued that they are entitled to a trial.

Judge William Thomas agreed SDE Media and set trial for June 6.

This lawsuit led to a public records lawsuit that was filed days later against Doral. The second lawsuit is also being handled by Judge Thomas and is expected be back in court in late June.

In January, Thomas ruled that about a dozen Doral city officials must turn over their cellphones in response to the lawsuit claiming Sunshine Law violations.

SDE Media accused several council members of colluding to vote against the request to place a billboard on 36th street near the Palmetto Expressway and wanted to look for evidence in texts, emails and voicemails on the phones.

The Doral officials contend the lawsuit is a tool to manipulate the city into granting the company special privileges in an area where the city’s billboard ordinance doesn’t allow billboards.

It took a month to collect all of the phones. Councilman Pete Cabrera said it infringed upon his civil rights; Councilwoman Christi Fraga was in labor at the time of the order.

The phones were ultimately submitted to a third-party company assigned by the court — Epiq Systems —for the copying of texts, voicemails and emails. Doral’s legal team reviewed the records to determine what content pertains to the legal dispute and on Wednesday, it gave SDE Media what it said was all relevant data.

But what came back in March might have been “incomplete,” said Thomas Julin, the attorney representing SDE Media. He said that the quantity of text messages was far lower than expected based on the frequency with which council members usually exchanged text messages with lobbyists, according to AT&T and Verizon records. Julin also said all the council members turned in iPhones, which encrypt outgoing emails so that only the “to” and “from” headers are searchable.

At the June hearing, Julin said SDE Media will be asking for more.

“We will be requesting that the court search further into the personal servers and that the city pay attorney’s fees” of $76,000, Julin said. “We are looking to get what we think is the rest of the communication that’s out there. We don’t know for sure but we think we don’t have the universe of the messages that are out there.”

One of Doral’s attorneys, Sam Zeskind, has told the Herald, “This is an attempt by SDE Media to continue their fishing expedition by claiming another conspiracy.”

“This is just SDE Media trying to strongarm the city for an illegal billboard,” Zeskind said. “The city of Doral not only complied with the court order, but went beyond the scope of the order and allowed Epiq to provide every call, email and message record including recovered deletions to the plaintiffs. Nothing was found … Epiq had complete access.”

Julin: “This is just the city resisting the billboard case and the public records case every step of the way.”

Monique O. Madan: 305-376-2108, @MoniqueOMadan