There’s been a lot of talk about lawsuits lately. From former Town Manager Don Stilwell’s termination to issues with developer Joe Orlandini’s projects, Islanders may well wonder exactly how many legal actions the Town currently faces. Six, as it turns out.
Contrary to what most people may think, not all Town lawsuits are handled by our Town Attorney, Dawn Lehnert.
“Every claim we get, we first send to the Florida League of Cities for their input as to whether or not they handle it,” said Director of Administrative Services Maureen Rischitelli. “It’s part of our liability insurance they carry. Should the Town be found to be negligent, then it would be up to the judge what we would pay, of course.”
Rischitelli said that the Town pays $290,000 per year to be part of the Florida League of Cities – a sum that covers not only legal liability but also many other services.
“They do training, safety training and things like manage the Town’s investments, as well as offer grant programs,” she said. “Right now, we are being reimbursed for half our expenses for gutters installed at the Mound House – that’s part of their safety grant.”
The Florida League of Cities represents more than 400 cities, villages and towns throughout the state. To find out more about them and the services they offer, visit www.floridaleagueofcities.com.
Lawsuits that do not fall under the Florida League of Cities’ purview are handled by Lehnert or outside counsel. According to public records, for the 6 months between February and July 2016, the Town paid $5,587.50 to attorney John S. Turner and $3,000.00 to Knott, Ebelini & Hart.
“Ebelini & Hart are former Town Manager Don Stilwell’s attorneys, and we paid those fees as part of the termination-without-cause agreement,” said Interim Town Manager Jim Steele. “Turner is representing us on the lawsuit filed by Joe Orlandini over the denial of his permit to rent beach chairs. Council authorized me to spend up to $20,000 on that one.”
Out of the six active lawsuits against the Town, three are being handled by the Florida League of Cities, one is the Orlandini suit that Turner is working on, and one is in District Court with the Town represented by the firm of Johnson, Anselmo, Murdoch, Burke, Piper & Hochman, PA. The last one – a lawsuit filed by Fish Tale Marina – is being handled by Lehnert.
Fish Tale Marina v. Town of Fort Myers Beach
Fish Tale’s action was filed on March 15 of this year after a February 16, 2016 decision by Town Council to deny their request that they be ‘grandfathered’ in and recognized as a nonconforming personal watercraft (jet-ski) vendor. The suit claims the Town incorrectly interpreted the Town’s Land Development Code (LDC) and zoning regulations, choosing instead to base their decision on Lee County’s ordinances and not the Town’s.
“The judge is reviewing everything that was filed, and I think they’ll be able to make a determination on this one with just the paperwork,” Lehnert told us. Court Records show a request for an oral argument filed in early July.
The three lawsuits being handled by the Florida League of Cities are all slip-and-fall cases, two of them also involving the Lighthouse Resort.
McSweeney v. Town of Fort Myers Beach
The most recent was filed on May 5 of this year by Daphne McSweeney, an Ohio resident who is asking for $15,000 – exclusive of interest, costs and attorney’s fees – for an injury she sustained when she fell into a drain catch basin on November 9, 2013. The reason the Town is included in the suit is because the property in question is jointly maintained by the resort and the Town. Her attorneys, Hoffman & Hoffman from Miami, claim McSweeney has suffered permanent injuries and have requested a jury trial.
Miners v. Town of Fort Myers Beach
The second lawsuit involving both the Town and Lighthouse was filed on June 26, 2015 by plaintiff Starr Miners, reads similar to McSweeney’s in that the plaintiff is asking for $15,000 for permanent injuries sustained to her left ankle on December 14, 2013 when she also fell into a drain catch basin. Starr’s suit – filed by Naples attorney Wayde Seidensticker – also includes a request for a $5,000 judgement against Lighthouse Resort’s insurance company – Century Surety, and requests a jury trial.
Blanton v. Town of Fort Myers Beach
The third slip-and-fall lawsuit is only against the Town. It was filed on November 23, 2015 by Kathyrn Blanton, who is asking for $15,000 for permanent injuries she sustained on January 1, 2013 while walking on the Town-main sidewalk near 6665 Estero Boulevard. Her attorneys, the Fort Myers firm Goldstein, Buckley, Cechman, Rice & Purtz, are requesting a jury trial.
Orlandini/Kline v. Town of Fort Myers Beach
A lawsuit filed in May 2016 by Joe Orlandini and Lyle Kline, owners of beachfront property located at 1560 I Street, revolves around a beach chair rental business. The business existed when they purchased the property on January 12, 2015. On January 19, 2016, the Town adopted Ordinance 15-12, which allowed for existing nonconforming beach furniture rental businesses if the operator could prove that they were operating at a site on January 1, 2015, a date the suit claims is arbitrary and capricious. The plaintiffs are asking that Ordinance 15-12 not be applied to the subject property as it violates their rights to due process and equal protection among other claims.
A hearing is scheduled for September 12, 2016 for the case.
“The pleadings in this one have been filed, along with a request for dismissal,” Lehnert said this week.
Carrasco v. Town of Fort Myers Beach
A lawsuit against the Town was filed in District Court on January 15, 2016 by former Town Community Development employee Jim Carrasco. It claims a civil rights violation. The court docket for this case shows that a mediation hearing should be held by April 21, 2017, with a final pre-trial conference on August 21, 2017. A jury trial is set to begin September 5, 2017. Neither Lehnert nor Steele had any additional information on this case.
In looking further back, we found a total of 29 lawsuits involving the Town since 2006, 23 of them settled or in abatement at this time.
Keri Hendry Weeg
Special Districts Lawsuit Status
The Fort Myers Beach Fire Control District has two active cases in the Lee County Courts. A 2015 case filed by former Fire Chief Darren White alleging Breach of Contract, is working its way through the courts with the most recent court filing in late May 2016. A February 2016 case filed against the Fire District by the law firm of Kunkel, Miller & Hament, a firm that had worked with the district on labor matters in the past, alleging failure to pay. A hearing in that case is scheduled today, Friday, August 5th. The Fire District’s attorney Andrew Salzman is handling both cases
The Fort Myers Beach Library and Mosquito Control have no legal cases on file as per a search of the Lee County Courts.