With the statute of limitations set to expire in October, St. Pete Beach City Commission was presented with a motion by City Attorney Andrew Dickman to initiate a professional malpractice lawsuit against its former law firm Bryant Miller Olive (BMO) at the commission meeting held on September 13. The city will seek to recoup approximately $625,000 in restitution for money the city spent for legal fees in addition to an undetermined amount of potential damages.
“There have now been four lawyers, not including myself, that have looked at the case and feel strongly that we have a valid case,” said Dickman.
During the time in question, the city was embroiled in legal battles with a group of residents that lasted a decade, cost the city millions of dollars and halted development. The commission met with BMO attorneys in closed sessions, or “shade meetings,” to discuss the cases. When attorneys for two plaintiffs in the redevelopment lawsuits, Chet Chmielewski and James Anderson, were denied access to transcripts of these meetings, they sued the city for violating the Sunshine Laws.
BMO successfully defended the city against the allegations that Sunshine Laws were violated in Circuit Court, but lost both cases in the Second District Court of Appeals, which meant the city had to reimburse the two plaintiffs’ legal fees. The city fired BMO and hired Dickman. In May 2016, a motion was approved to retain the counsel of trial attorney James Rolfes of the Sarasota law firm Dickinson & Gibbons, P.A. who recommended the city take the first step of hiring independent experts to go through all documents, court rulings and motions to determine if the malpractice case would be viable.
While there were some reservations from the St. Pete Beach City Commission, they voted unanimously to approve the amended motion.
Commissioner Ward Friszolowski prefaced his vote with the statement that he was “concerned this would be something that will take time and effort away from other things.”
Commissioner Maria Pletcher noted, “I do think it merits respecting the attorneys’ position. I feel comfortable moving forward.”
Attorney Benjamin Hill, who represents BMO, contends that the appellate court rendered an opinion about the Sunshine Law that did not exist during the time BMO was employed by St. Pete Beach.
“Bryant Miller Olive has done nothing wrong. It will establish that the advice it gave the City was consistent with the law at the time the advice was given. BMO did nothing wrong in its strategic defense of the City, fully representing the City in a vexing case that is still being forcefully litigated to this day. The lawsuit against Bryant Miller Olive will be vigorously defended,” said Hill.
According to Dickman, the court will require a jury trial. Rolfes has been hired on contingency, which means should the city win, he will receive a portion of the settlement.