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Date of Issue: March 12, 2008

Judge says 'no' to Bradenton Beach fee request

A Manatee County Circuit Court judge last week issued an order denying a motion from the city of Bradenton Beach to claim more than $50,000 in legal fees from The Islander newspaper.

The order came in a lengthy dispute between the newspaper and the city over public records and meetings and just weeks after a ruling on The Islander’s motion to recover its legal fees from the city. In that order, Judge Edward Nicholas said the city must pay the newspaper $5,600 in attorney’s fees and $255 in court filing costs, far less than the $75,000 sought.

Regarding the ruling on the city’s request to recover fees, Nicholas issued a short order. He wrote, “The court having considered the argument of counsel, the memorandums and case law provided by each and being otherwise fully advised in the premises, finds as follows: The defendant’s motion for attorney’s fees is denied.”

City attorney Ricinda Perry declined to comment, saying the city had not yet received the order.

Islander attorney Kendra Presswood said, “The city and its attorneys had no valid legal or factual basis for the city’s motion for attorney’s fees against The Islander, so the order does not come as a surprise.”

Presswood added that there was still time to decide whether to appeal Nicholas’ ruling awarding the reduced fee to the newspaper.

“I will appeal the order on our motion for fees,” said the attorney, who is the daughter of Islander publisher Bonner Joy.

The court dispute dates back to last winter, when the city received a complaint of sexual harassment from one employee, Gail Garneau, against another, Ed McAdam.

An investigation, conducted by Perry in consultation with then-Mayor John Chappie, was initiated. But very quickly McAdam resigned, his decision accepted by the city commission during an emergency meeting and without public discussion.

The Islander initiated a public records request for information pertaining to the investigation and McAdam’s resignation, as well as raised questions about the lack of public discussion on the issue.

Eventually the newspaper took its concerns to court, alleging that the city had violated Florida’s Government-in-the-Sunshine Law and the state Public Records Act.

In November, after the filing of numerous motions by both parties and court hearings, Judge Peter Dubensky issued a ruling partially in The Islander’s favor, finding the city violated the Public Records Act by withholding documents. He also said there was insufficient evidence on the Sunshine Law claims.

Based on that ruling, both parties declared some level of victory and returned to the courthouse with motions requesting that the other side pay their legal costs.

First before another judge, Nicholas, was the question of if the newspaper could recover fees and how much. Both sides conceded that the paper was entitled to some reimbursement but were far apart on the amount.

Nicholas’ order came closer to the city’s claim. The judge said $75,000 was excessive because the withheld documents were turned over to the newspaper on June 27, 2007, and that the city’s attorney had argued “all fees generated subsequent” to the release of the papers “were unnecessary.”

In regards to the city’s request to recover court costs, Perry argued in documents that the newspaper’s claims were “frivolous, or at a minimum, were pursued in bad faith” and thus the paper should be required to pay.

Presswood, in turn, argued that the city was not entitled to recover fees in the case. The Sunshine Law, to summarize Presswood’s 21-page memo, allows for the plaintiff to recover fees, but not the public entity.

Nicholas issued his order denying the fees on March 6.

Presswood called the city’s motion for fees “simply another mean-spirited attack on the newspaper and a waste of the city’s money on attorney’s fees that should never have been incurred.”

She said she filed a motion for sanctions “asking to be reimbursed for the attorney’s fees incurred in responding to the motion because the city’s attorneys either knew or should have known it was frivolous.”

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