Fla. floating home battle not ended by high court

April 26, 2014 - 12:05 PM
House or Boat

In this April 22, 2014 photo, Fane Lozman poses for photos holding his dog and in front of his home floating in the waters near North Bay Village, Fla. He caught legal lightning in a bottle last year when the U.S. Supreme Court agreed with him that his floating home was a house, not a vessel covered by maritime law. But the justices haven’t had the last word: Lozman is still fighting for compensation for the home, which was destroyed years ago. The Fort Lauderdale-based federal judge whose decision on the floating home was overturned, U.S. District Judge William Dimitrouleas, refused earlier this year to give Lozman any of the $25,000 bond posted by the city of Riviera Beach to pay for Lozman’s home in case he won. (AP Photo/J Pat Carter)

NORTH BAY VILLAGE, Fla. (AP) — A Florida man won a precedent-setting victory last year when the U.S. Supreme Court agreed with him that his floating home was a house, not a vessel covered by maritime law. But so far the ruling hasn't helped him secure compensation for the home, which a city seized and destroyed using the laws that govern ships at sea.

A judge refused in March to give homeowner Fane Lozman a single penny of the $25,000 bond posted by the city of Riviera Beach to pay for Lozman's home in case he won. Now Lozman is seeking compensation through a separate civil rights lawsuit he filed in 2008 before another judge.

The lawsuit claims that Riviera Beach city officials conspired to harass him and stifle his free speech rights — and eventually try to evict him from a city marina and destroy his home — because he vocally opposed a major private marina project pushed by the city.

A hearing is scheduled for late May on the lawsuit, and Lozman has vowed not to let the matter drop. The lanky 52-year-old who served in the Marines and made millions as a financial trader in Chicago considers it his mission to fight what he considers government corruption and waste, documenting his efforts on his personal website.

The Supreme Court's 2013 ruling on his floating home was seen by legal experts as an important precedent in maritime law for thousands of other people who make their homes on the water as well as businesses such as floating casinos. Different laws apply to vessels and homes, with homeowners receiving some protection from seizure under state laws in Florida and elsewhere.

Lozman's 57-foot floating home was first unsuccessfully targeted by Riviera Beach for eviction from its marina. Then, the city declared in 2009 it was a vessel and that Lozman had to leave unless he could get it registered as such. Eventually that dispute wound up in federal court, leading to the Supreme Court ruling.

When it came time to settle the $25,000 bond issue, Riviera Beach officials noted that the home sold for only $4,100 before it was destroyed. The winning bidder was the city itself. Still, the officials said in court papers that Lozman had ample opportunity to prevent its destruction, including bidding on it himself at an auction.

"He should not be rewarded for a total loss that was completely avoidable," said Jules Massee, one of the city's attorneys, in a court document.

Fort Lauderdale-based U.S. District Judge William Dimitrouleas — who'd previously sided with the city before the high court overturned the ruling decision — refused in March to give the bond money to Lozman.

"This judge doesn't decide the law of the land. The Supreme Court does," Lozman said in an interview. "It's a slap in the face of the Supreme Court."

The battle now is joined before a different federal judge on Lozman's civil rights lawsuit, in which he claims the Riviera Beach City Council decided in a closed 2006 meeting to start a "campaign of harassment and retaliation" against him over the marina project dispute.

That included, he says, his improper arrest while speaking at an open city council meeting, after which he was led out in handcuffs. Lozman was charged with disorderly conduct, trespassing and resisting arrest without violence, but Palm Beach County prosecutors ultimately dropped the case.

Lozman seeks unspecified damages in the civil rights case, including compensation for his floating home. He also says he incurred $250,000 in legal fees and costs in the long appellate fight.

The city contends he should again get nothing. Its lawyers say there's no evidence the city ever had a formal policy to harass or intimidate him and that it was Dimitrouleas who approved the floating home's sale and destruction.

"A municipality should not be held liable for actions over which it was no control," the Riviera Beach attorneys said in court papers.

A hearing is set for May 19 that will determine whether the case ends or proceeds to trial, which would take place in October. Lozman is now living with his dog and cat on a larger, two-story floating home near Miami, but is determined to see through the case related to his previous dwelling.

"A jury is going to need to determine the value of my floating home," he said.

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