LAW OFFICE OF ROBERT K. LINCOLN, P.A.

Land Use and Local Government Law and Litigation

The Law Office of Robert K. Lincoln, P.A.  provides legal services to private and public entities involved in complex land use disputes.  Hiring an attorney is an important decision that should not be based solely upon advertisements.  Before you decide, ask and I will provide free information about my experience and qualifications. 

Code Enforcement and the Fact Not Discussed

In City of Miami v. Cortez, the 3d District overturned a circuit court decision in an appeal of a code enforcement board "mitigation order."

The 3d found that the circuit court failed to comport with the essential requirements of law. It found that any objections to the testimony in the mitigation hearing were not preserved, and that due process had been followed.

Here's how the 3d characterized the background facts:

On October 3, 2003, the City’s Code Enforcement Board ("Board") held a hearing
where property owner Amado Sabina pled guilty to a code violation for
performance of work on a residential property without a final permit. The Board
entered an enforcement order on October 10, 2003. Property owners Sabina and
Eumelia Cortes were afforded 60 days to correct the violation or face a fine of
$250 per day.

The property owners failed to correct the violations
and fines totaling $105,750 were assessed. On June 2, 2005, the Board held a
mitigation hearing to determine whether to reduce the amount of the fines
accrued. All of the witnesses at the hearing were duly sworn. At the conclusion
of that hearing, the Board reduced the fine to $10,000 and entered a mitigation
order.


The property owners appealed the mitigation order to the appellate
division of the circuit court, arguing that the mitigation order should be set
aside because the city inspector had improperly delayed inspection for a period
of six months. However the Board had already accepted this argument in reducing
the fine to $10,000. The appellate division nonetheless reversed both the
enforcement and mitigation orders.


The 3d quashed the decision of the circuit court.

However, it's clear to me that the 3d didn't include the truly relevant facts or address the real due process problem.

I suspect that the owners thought that they had fixed the problem and were shocked that fines were still accruing - this happens ALL THE TIME in these cases. The issue is that these orders end up creating "running fines" and (I think unconstitutionally) put the burden of proof on the owners to demonstrate that the violation no longer exists. Once an order imposing fines is issued, the local governments claim that they are under no further obligation to investigate or to determine whether a violation continues.

When the violation is for work without a permit, the violation generally isn't fixed until a permit is issued, any remedial work is done, and the work is inspected and signed off. This creates a situation where the local government can leave a person in violation by delaying permit decisions or imposing improper conditions, by finding inconsequential problems in the inspection, or by not inspecting. And by not notifying the code enforcement people when the inspection is done.

It's quite possible under the fact here that the property owners in fact got a permit and did anything else they needed to do within the 60 day window, but that the inspections were delayed and then even after the inspection the fines were accruing.

I would argue strongly that if that is the case, then the code enforcement statute is being administered unconstitutionally. I KNOW that this happens every day.

And I'm having to speculate because the opinion in this case is so devoid of the truly relevant facts, but I suspect that this is what the owners showed to the circuit court. So, did the 3d District get it wrong? We really can't tell because the opinion doesn't give use the rel event facts.

LESSON: If a client gets into code enforcement problems, get in the board's face and start objecting to EVERYTHING from the first hearing. Object that the hearings violate due process because the written guidelines are inadequate or lacking; demand rulings on right to cross examine; object to every piece of written evidence that is offered (most of it is hearsay, lots of it is inadmissible). Object to the local ordinance if you can. And demand very specific findings from the Board or Special Magistrate regarding EXACTLY what actions need to be taken to correct the violation. And then appeal the VERY FIRST determination (the "violation" determination).

If it gets to a "penalty" hearing, make the same objections. Then enter evidence on the "four factors" in the section 162.09 regarding the amount of penalty.

The code enforcement system has turned into a maze of abusive traps because the processes are badly written, badly administered, and almost always applied against unrepresented respondents.

46 N. Washington Blvd, Suite 7, Sarasota, FL 34236      Phone (941) 681-8700

Hiring an attorney is an important decision that should not be based solely upon advertisements. Before you decide, ask and I will send you free written information about my qualifications and experience. Additionally, the comments, statements and articles contained herein are general in nature and should not be relied upon as a basis for any legal opinion, action or conclusion on the part of the reader with respect to any particular set of facts or circumstances, or to establish an attorney-client relationship between us.