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Siesta Key Thursday, May. 3, 2012 5 years ago

My View: Bullies on the block - lawsuits

by: Rod Thomson

Too many lawyers curdle the culture and frighten the populace.

But Sarasota Police Chief Mikel Hollaway isn’t frightened. He’s going to do what he believes is right and legal, and the heck with the lawyers.

We need more of that.

The ACLU — chock full of lawyers — has filed a lawsuit about the city’s trespass program, and city officials are running scared. The city’s trespass program allows property owners to give police the authority to shoo people off their property with warnings and, ultimately, arrests. It’s a popular program with merchants and property owners downtown, because between the homeless and Occupy ne’er-do-wells, they have a problem.

But the ACLU’s lifeblood is the publicity gained through lawsuits and threatening lawsuits. Don’t think so? Does the so-called civil rights organization ever file a lawsuit without notifying every media outlet within range?

The ACLU threatened a class-action lawsuit (one news story) and two days later filed the lawsuit (a second “news” story), claiming to represent 6,500 claimants. Of course, those are all unnamed and largely fanciful claimants in the grievance-fevered minds of the ACLU.

The organization’s lawyers say they went through police records and found an average of 2,100 trespass warnings the past four years, with a fifth of those to people with multiple warnings. So, these were not people arrested, just given a warning to leave private property — something most everyone would appreciate police doing on their own property.

In the real world, there are only four actual, non-fictional claimants.

The ACLU’s bullying tactics prompted an immediate 60-day suspension of the program by Sarasota City Attorney Robert Fournier. (Did anyone else know the hired city attorney could just suspend city rules at will?)
Now the program may indeed have a flaw. It does not appear to allow for those charged with trespass to contest the charges. Even a speeding ticket can be contested. But that is easily fixed, if true, and hardly requires a class-action lawsuit. Chief Hollaway says he will continue enforcing the program once fixed. But it’s likely the ACLU will still find problems with it because it has an agenda, and it is not the good of the homeless or the property owners.

Exhibit two of lawyer culture-curdling is the State College of Florida Board of Trustees’ decision to grant tenure to 11 instructors.

State rules require that colleges must grant tenure to instructors who have received three satisfactory evaluations during a five-year period — a ridiculously low standard for giving essentially lifetime job guarantees.

The trustees initially wanted to re-examine the whole tenure situation, because the Florida Board of Education is set to take it up. But the state action would come after the instructors’ contracts expired, and the trustees’ lawyer said that while they may not be breaking a law, “there is exposure to a lawsuit.”

The trustees caved.

So the threat of lawyer bullying pushed officials into making a decision based on the fear of a lawsuit.
We see this at every intersection of our lives.

Medical costs are driven skyward in part by the constancy of lawsuits. Ask physicians what they pay for malpractice insurance — insurance to cover the cost of lawsuits and the threat of lawsuits — and it will blow your socks off.

Businesses large and small are regularly making decisions based on the threat of litigation, or to limit their potential liability. Some innovations never get tried, and are therefore lost, because the lawyer-lawsuit bully is always lurking around the corner.

In all of these cases, it’s not just the potential of losing a lawsuit, it is the cost of defending against every lawsuit, including the frivolous ones. Lawyers on both sides typically win financially, regardless of who wins in the courtroom.

The Legislature keeps putting off tort reform, perhaps because it just doesn’t pack the requisite political punch. But it is time to defang the lawyer-lawsuit bullies. If only most of our legislators weren’t lawyers.

Rod Thomson can be reached at [email protected].

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