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Braden Woods Homeowners Association, Inc. v. Mavard Trading, Ltd.

Florida Court of Appeals, Second District

June 21, 2019

BRADEN WOODS HOMEOWNERS ASSOCIATION, INC., a Florida not for profit corporation; and LAKEWOOD RANCH MEDICAL CENTER, a Florida for profit corporation, Appellants,
v.
MAVARD TRADING, LTD., a BVI corporation registered to transact business in Florida; DOCTORS HOSPITAL OF SARASOTA, a Florida for profit corporation; JOHN R. BARNOTT in his official capacity as the Director of Building and Development Services for Manatee County; and MANATEE COUNTY, a political subdivision of the State of Florida, Appellees.

         NOT FINAL UNTIL TIME EXPIRES TO FILE REHEARING MOTION AND, IF FILED, DETERMINED

          Appeal from the Circuit Court for Manatee County; Lon S. Arend, Judge.

          Robert K. Lincoln of the Law Office of Robert K. Lincoln, P.A., Sarasota, for Appellant Braden Woods Homeowners Association, Inc.

          Jay Cohen of Cohen, Blostein & Ayala, P.A., Fort Lauderdale, for Appellant Lakewood Ranch Medical Center.

          Christopher M. De Carlo and Anne M. Morris of Manatee County Attorney's Office, Bradenton, for Appellees Manatee County and John R. Barnott.

          Raoul G. Cantero, David P. Draigh and Ryan A. Ulloa of White & Case, LLP, Miami; and Walter J. Taché and Jennifer Christianson of Taché, Bronis, Christianson & Descalzo, P.A., Miami, for Appellee Doctors Hospital of Sarasota.

          Laurie A. Thompson, Susan H. Aprill and Kirsten I. Baier of Fowler White Burnett P.A., West Palm Beach, for Appellee Mavard Trading, Ltd.

          SILBERMAN, Judge.

         Braden Woods Homeowners Association, Inc., and Lakewood Ranch Medical Center (the Plaintiffs) appeal a partial final judgment that dismissed with prejudice counts one, two, and three of their four-count amended complaint that seeks declaratory and injunctive relief.[1] The Plaintiffs filed this action against Mavard Trading, Ltd. (Mavard), Doctors Hospital of Sarasota (Doctors), Manatee County (the County), and John R. Barnott in his official capacity as the Director of Building and Development Services for Manatee County (Barnott). The Plaintiffs challenge the trial court's dismissal of Barnott as a defendant as well as the dismissal of counts one and two on appeal. We affirm the trial court's order to the extent that it dismisses count three and dismisses Barnott from the lawsuit with prejudice, and we reverse the dismissal of counts one and two and remand for further proceedings against Defendants Mavard, Doctors, and the County.

         This action arose from the application to construct and operate a freestanding emergency room (FSER) on property owned by Mavard and leased to Doctors (the Property). Barnott administratively approved the final site plan (FSP) for the Property. Braden Woods represents the subdivision that abuts the shopping center where the property for the FSER is located. Lakewood Ranch is a competitor business that operates an emergency room as part of its licensed hospital, located within five miles of the FSER property.

         The Manatee County Board of County Commissioners (the Board) approved a preliminary site plan (PSP) for the Property for a retail site by a 2009 ordinance (the 2009 PSP Ordinance). Upon Mavard and Doctors' application and after a public hearing on June 2, 2016, the Board amended the PSP only to extend the expiration of the PSP until April 2, 2018 (the 2016 PSP Ordinance). In May 2016, Mavard and Doctors applied for FSP approval for the FSER.

         The Property is in the future land use category of Retail/Office/Residential. The Property is in a planned development district and is zoned as Planned Development Commercial (PDC) which allows clinics but prohibits hospitals. The Manatee County Land Development Code (LDC) did not define an FSER as it was a new business concept in Manatee County.

         Robin Meyer, a division manager, reviewed the FSP application and correspondence. Meyer believed the FSER use would be a hospital and would not be a permitted use. Meyer requested a legal opinion from the Office of the County Attorney. In a June 2016 email, Sarah Schenk, an assistant county attorney, stated that it was "unclear what analysis was applied to allow the change in use from retail as stated in Section 2 of [the 2009 PSP Ordinance] to a clinic or some form of emergency service facility without going through the public hearing process to amend the ordinance." Meyer told Doctors' representatives in July 2016 that the project would need a public hearing before the Board to change the retail use. Doctors' representatives complained to Barnott of the cost and delay of a hearing. Barnott fired Meyer in August 2016.

         Barnott obtained additional information from Doctors about the FSER and reviewed the LDC and Florida Statutes. He issued a written letter of interpretation dated September 16, 2016 (the Code Interpretation). Barnott determined that the proposed FSER would fall within the category of clinic because, as detailed in the letter, the FSER was more like an urgent care facility or clinic than a hospital. He relied on sections 311 and 401.2 of the LDC in his interpretation. Relying on section 401.2, he stated the following:

[W]henever there is any uncertainty as to the classification of a use, the Department Director shall determine the classification, if any, within which the use falls, based on its characteristics and similarity to other uses in the district. If a use has characteristics similar to more than one classification, the use shall be construed as the classification having the most similar characteristics.

         But section 401.2 applies to standard districts, not planned development districts, as discussed in our analysis below. Because Barnott determined that an FSER was more like a clinic, he concluded that this would allow the proposed use at the site to be approved and reviewed by administrative permit rather than requiring approval by the Board.

         Barnott, through staff, administratively approved the FSP on November 23, 2016. On December 7, 2016, Braden Woods sent a letter to the Board about the application for the FSER and stated its concerns regarding traffic and noise. In an email response on December 14, 2016, from the County's Building and Development Services Department, Braden Woods was informed of the timeline of the development of the FSER. Braden Woods was advised of the Code Interpretation of September 16, 2016, and the FSP approval of November 23, 2016. The County issued a building permit for the FSER on December 16, 2016.

         The Plaintiffs filed the original complaint on February 17, 2017, and on April 13, 2017, filed the operative First Amended Complaint (the Amended Complaint). Count one of the Amended Complaint seeks relief pursuant to chapter 86, Florida Statutes (2016), the declaratory judgment statute, and the injunction provision in section 106.3.A of the LDC to declare Barnott's FSP approval and the FSP void and ultra vires and to enjoin the resulting violations of the LDC from the construction or operation of the FSER. Count two seeks relief pursuant to (1) chapter 86; (2) section 125.66(4), Florida Statutes (2016), the notice statute; and (3) section 106.3.A to declare Barnott's FSP approval and the FSP void and ultra vires because the County and Barnott violated the notice statute and to enjoin the resulting violations of the LDC from the construction or operation of the FSER. Count three, which is not at issue on appeal, deals with the extension of the time period for the PSP. Count four by Braden Woods, based on a settlement agreement, remains pending against Mavard and Doctors.

         The Defendants filed motions to dismiss the Amended Complaint and asserted, among other things, that the Plaintiffs had failed to exhaust the administrative remedies provided for in the LDC and that Barnott was not a proper party. After conducting a hearing on the motions, the trial court dismissed counts one through three against Barnott in his official capacity based on qualified immunity and because any declaratory or injunctive relief that the court might grant against the County would provide the Plaintiffs with the relief they seek against Barnott. The trial court dismissed counts one through three against all Defendants based on the Plaintiffs' failure to exhaust their administrative remedies and the failure to timely seek certiorari review. The trial court denied the motion to dismiss count four. As mentioned, the Plaintiffs challenge on appeal the dismissal of Barnott and the dismissal of counts one and two.

         I. DISMISSAL WITH PREJUDICE AS TO BARNOTT

         The trial court erred in determining that Barnott was entitled to qualified immunity. However, the trial court's decision dismissing the counts against Barnott with prejudice is supported by the trial court's additional determination that because Barnott is an employee of Manatee County, any declaratory or injunctive relief that the trial court might grant against the County would provide the Plaintiffs the relief they seek against Barnott. Thus, suing Barnott in his official capacity is redundant to suing the County.

         Our review of the dismissal of a complaint with prejudice is de novo. Neapolitan Enters., LLC v. City of Naples, 185 So.3d 585, 589 (Fla. 2d DCA 2016). A motion to dismiss challenges the legal sufficiency of a complaint. Id. In considering a ruling on the motion to dismiss, we accept the allegations of the complaint as true. Id.

         A. Qualified Immunity

         "Qualified immunity protects government actors performing discretionary functions from liability and suit for civil damages unless their conduct violates clearly established federal statutory or constitutional rights." Bd. of Regents v. Snyder, 826 So.2d 382, 389-90 (Fla. 2d DCA 2002) (citing Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982)). In Harlow, the Supreme Court specifically limited its decision to suits for civil damages and "express[ed] no view as to the conditions in which injunctive or declaratory relief might be available." 457 U.S. at 819 n.34. Qualified immunity is a shield from liability for civil damages. See Vermette v. Ludwig, 707 So.2d 742, 745 (Fla. 2d DCA 1997); Town of Southwest Ranches v. Kalam, 980 So.2d ...


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