In a sweeping victory that Riviera Beach officials hope will help them bury an ugly chapter in their history, a federal jury on Tuesday rejected activist Fane Lozman’s claims that city officials punished him for speaking out.
“It’s a vindication for the city,” a jubilant City Attorney Pamala Ryan said. “No matter what happens in the future at least nine members of the community looked at all the facts and looked at everything that’s been done since Mr. Lozman started his reign of terror and said to the city, ‘You’ve done nothing wrong.’ “
The jury deliberated for roughly seven hours before announcing it found no merits to Lozman’s claims that the city violated his First Amendment rights.
During the nearly month-long trial, Lozman argued that city officials had him arrested, destroyed his floating home and even went after his dog to punish him for his vociferous opposition to the city’s now-scuttled multi-billion-dollar redevelopment plan and for persuading state judges that the commission violated Florida’s public meeting laws.
“I got skunked,” the 53-year-old self-made millionaire said.
The verdict was a stunning reversal for Lozman. Two years ago, he persuaded the U.S. Supreme Court that Riviera Beach officials wrongfully seized his two-story floating home from the city marina and had it destroyed. Settling a complex and unsettled area of law, the high court ruled that just because something floats doesn’t necessarily make it a boat. Therefore, it ruled, the city shouldn’t have seized Lozman’s home using centuries-old maritime law.
Bouyed by that victory and others, Lozman said he plans to appeal. He said he has already notched two victories against U.S. District Judge Daniel Hurley, who presided over the trial.
“Hurley’s been wrong twice. There’s no reason I can’t win a third time,” Lozman said.
Attorney Ben Bedard, who has represented Riviera Beach in the battle that began in 2006 shortly after the former U.S. Marine docked his floating home in the city, said he hopes Lozman will finally remove the city from his hit list.
“I hope Mr. Lozman takes from this that there was no retaliation,” he said. “I’m hoping he moves on with his life and leaves the city alone.”
Throughout the trial, Bedard argued that city officials were forced to take action against Lozman. Bedard played dozens of tapes of Lozman attacking commissioners and staff during city meetings.
In most cases, city officials allowed him to rant. However, when Lozman refused to honor a three-minute time limit, strayed from talking about city business or when the attacks got intensely personal, police were asked to remove him. In one case, he was arrested. The charges were later dismissed by state prosecutors.
“The videos showed that he was able to talk freely,” Bedard said. “The only time he was interrupted is when he violated the rules of decorum. It had nothing to do with his viewpoint.”
Lozman — who represented himself in court — contended that Hurley shouldn’t have allowed Bedard to show the jury what seemed like an endless stream of tapes. The only one that matter was one that showed him being arrested in 2006 after Commissioner Liz Wade ordered a police officer to remove him. Wade told Lozman his comments about the corruption-related arrests of former Palm Beach County Commissioner Tony Masilotti and West Palm Beach City Commissioner Ray Liberti had nothing to do with Riviera Beach.
Lozman also claimed Hurley shouldn’t have forced him to admit that he made millions patenting a financial tracking software program. “The jury was, like, here you have this poor little town, why should we pay this rich guy anything?” he said of the impact of Bedard’s question.
The jury never had to address Lozman’s request to make the city pay him roughly $500,000, including $120,000 for his floating home because it cleared the city.
Ryan says the verdict shows jurors rejected Lozman’s vision of himself as a corruption-fighter. Instead, she said, they realized he abused people who wanted to make the city better.
“We treated him like any other member of the public - with respect,” she said. “Unfortunately, he didn’t return that respect.”