EVERGLADES LAW CENTER, INC., Maggy Hurchalla, and Donna Melzer, Appellants,
SOUTH FLORIDA WATER MANAGEMENT DISTRICT, a public corporation of the State of Florida, Martin County, a political subdivision of the State of Florida, Lake Point Phase I, LLC, a Florida limited liability company, and Lake Point Phase II, LLC, a Florida limited liability company, Appellees.
appeal from the Circuit Court for the Nineteenth Judicial
Circuit, Martin County; William L. Roby, Judge; L.T. Case
Nos. 43-2017-CA-001098 and 43-2018-CA-000108.
I. LaHart, of Marcy I. LaHart, P.A., Micanopy, for appellant
Everglades Law Center, Inc.
Virginia P. Sherlock of Littman, Sherlock & Heims, P.A.,
Stuart, for appellant Maggy Hurchalla.
Sutter Melzer, Palm City, pro se.
E. Warner and Dean A. Morande of Carlton Fields Jorden Burt,
P.A., West Palm Beach, for Amicus Curiae First Amendment
J. Accardo, James W. Sherman, Judith W. Levine and Laura E.
Scala-Olympio, of South Florida Water Management District,
West Palm Beach, for appellee South Florida Water Management
L. Logan of Marks Gray, P.A., Jacksonville, and Kansas R.
Gooden of Boyd & Jenerette, P.A., Jacksonville, for
Amicus Curiae Florida Defense Lawyers Association.
Richard Grosso of Richard Grosso, P.A., Davie, for appellants
Everglades Law Center, Inc., and Maggy Hurchalla.
S. Melzer, Palm City, for appellee Donna Melzer.
address a matter of first impression
involving shade meetings and the public's interest in
protecting government in the sunshine and mediation
communications. Reading applicable provisions of the Florida
Constitution and statutes in pari materia, we conclude that
mediation communications disclosed by a governmental attorney
during a shade meeting are to be redacted from the transcript
of the shade meeting when it becomes a public record.
Law Center, Inc. ("ELC"), Maggy Hurchalla
("Hurchalla"), and Donna Sutter Melzer
("Melzer") (collectively, "Appellants"),
appeal several orders entered by the trial court involving
the trial court's determination that mediation
communications are exempt from disclosure with reference to
the transcript of a shade meeting conducted by the South
Florida Water Management District ("the District").
Appellants also appeal the trial court's order denying
their motions to dismiss for improper venue. We affirm
without discussion the trial court's venue ruling. We
also affirm the trial court's determination that
mediation communications are subject to redaction from the
shade meeting transcript and explain our
analysis. However, the trial court erred in
denying Appellants' petition for mandamus to compel the
disclosure of the full shade meeting transcript without
conducting an in camera review of the transcript to determine
if redactions were appropriate. Thus, we affirm in part,
reverse in part, and remand the case for further proceedings
consistent with this opinion.
Point Phase I, LLC and Lake Point Phase II, LLC
(collectively, "Lake Point"), the District, and
Martin County entered into a partnership for an environmental
project. After contract disputes arose, Lake Point brought
suit against the District, Martin County, and Hurchalla,
claiming damages ("the Lake Point Litigation").
During the course of that litigation, the trial court ordered
the parties to attend mediation.
District filed a certification of authority, naming its
attorney, Brian Accardo, as its representative at mediation,
certifying that he "ha[d] full authority to negotiate on
behalf of the District and to recommend settlement to the
District's Governing Board [("the
Board")]." Several mediation sessions were
conducted by the mediator with all of the parties.
Eventually, Lake Point and the District developed a
settlement agreement at mediation ("the MSA").
District held duly noticed meetings that included closed and
confidential attorney-client sessions in accordance with
section 286.011(8), Florida Statutes (2017). At issue in this
case is one specific meeting
that occurred on August 23, 2017 ("the Shade
Meeting"). An open meeting immediately preceded the
Shade Meeting. When the Board convened the Shade Meeting, a
certified court reporter recorded the entire closed-door
session, as required by statute.
to the minutes of the public portion of the meeting, only the
Board members and two attorneys representing the District in
the Lake Point Litigation were present during the Shade
Meeting. At the conclusion of the Shade Meeting, the Board
immediately returned to an open meeting, whereupon the chair
solicited a motion to "accept or reject the terms of the
settlement," referring to the discussion during the
Shade Meeting. The Board approved the MSA at that open
Lake Point and the District entered a joint stipulation for
dismissal of their respective claims against one another with
prejudice. Eventually, Martin County and Lake Point entered
into a separate mediated settlement agreement, resulting in
Martin County being dismissed from the litigation. The
litigation between Lake Point and Hurchalla continued to a
ELC, a nonprofit law firm dedicated to representing the
public interest in environmental and land use matters, became
interested in the Lake Point Litigation. ELC strives to
enhance governmental transparency regarding governmental
decisions impacting the environment.
it was dismissed from the litigation, the District filed an
action for declaratory relief, naming ELC, Martin County,
Hurchalla, and Lake Point as defendants. The District alleged
that shortly after it approved the MSA, Appellants made a
public records request for the Shade Meeting transcript. The
District requested the trial court enter a declaratory
judgment that it was not required to produce and disclose the
Shade Meeting transcript.
filed its answer and also filed a counterclaim in the form of
"a petition for writ of mandamus to enforce the
provisions of Chapter 119, Florida Statutes." ELC
requested that the trial court enter a writ requiring the
District to produce the full Shade Meeting transcript. Melzer
filed a similar counterclaim seeking disclosure of the full
hearing on ELC's petition for writ of mandamus, the
District argued that the Shade Meeting transcript was exempt
from disclosure pursuant to section 44.102(3), Florida
Statutes (2017), which states: "All written
communications in a mediation proceeding, other than an
executed settlement agreement, shall be exempt from the
requirements of chapter 119." ELC argued that the
statements made during the Shade Meeting and the transcript
were not "written communications" and the
statements were not made in a "mediation
proceeding." At no time during the proceedings below did
Appellants ask the trial court to conduct an in camera review
of the Shade Meeting transcript. The transcript was not filed
in the trial court and is not part of the appellate record.
trial court entered an order denying ELC's petition for
writ of mandamus and entering final judgment on ELC's
counterclaim. In its written order, the trial court noted
that "because the parties agreed that this Court was not
required to take evidence, the Court relies on the
representations of counsel," and found that "as a
matter of law, mediation communications reflected in the
transcripts are exempt from disclosure under Chapter
on Appellants' stipulation that the trial court's
ruling as to the petition for mandamus was determinative of
judgment actions, the trial court entered final judgment in
favor of the District on all claims and counterclaims filed
by Appellants. The Appellants gave notice of appeal.
support of their contention that they are entitled to the
full transcript of the Shade Meeting, Appellants rely on
section 286.011(8), Florida Statutes (2017). Section
286.011(8) provides for a limited exception to the public
meeting requirements of Florida's Sunshine Law.
Appellants contend that section 286.011(8) does not contain
an explicit exception for mediation communications.
Appellants further contend that there is no provision of
chapter 119, Florida's Public Records Act, which
permanently exempts the disclosure of the Shade Meeting
transcript. Additionally, Appellants argue that the trial
court erroneously interpreted statutes pertaining to
mediation to conclude that there is a public records
exemption from disclosure of the Shade Meeting transcript. In