St. Pete Beach Commission took preliminary action toward a malpractice lawsuit against its former legal firm Bryant, Miller & Olive at the May 10 commission meeting. A motion was approved to retain the counsel of Sarasota law firm Dickinson & Gibbons, P.A., for professional malpractice action. Bryant, Miller & Olive (BMO) unsuccessfully defended St. Pete Beach in two separate cases involving Sunshine Law violations. The statute of limitations to file for litigation was set to expire in October of this year.
St. Pete Beach Mayor Maria Lowe said, “We continuously said that this issue is a fiduciary responsibility matter. This has helped to lift this from any emotive state and remove any sentiment from the case to make the most objective decision possible. We do not take this decision lightly.”
In 2015, the commission hired an independent attorney, Marion Hale from the Clearwater law firm of Johnson & Pope to review transcripts of private meetings between BMO and the commission, as well as court arguments and filings. A document contained in the May 10 commission meeting agenda packet, dated September 23, 2015, stated that Hale believes BMO committed malpractice in one of the two cases.
According to Hale’s document, “The city had every reason to rely upon the advice it received from BMO. BMO breached that duty when it allowed shade meetings to be held where the subject matter of those meetings was not confined to settlement negotiations or strategy sessions related to litigation expenditures.”
St. Pete Beach City Attorney Andrew Dickman agreed with Hale’s opinion.
“It’s disappointing that I have to recommend going through with this. I have not been able to solve the problem through honest, open dialogue,” said Dickman.
Attorney Jim Rolfes of Dickinson & Gibbons addressed the commission and recommended a first step of hiring an independent expert to go through all documents, court rulings and motions to present an informed decision about moving forward with the case.
Newly elected District 3 Commissioner Ward Friszolowski stated some reservations about the cost of hiring such an expert without a cap on spending.
“My concern is that there is no limit to expenditures,” said Friszolowski, who suggested a modification of the motion to include a cap. “Can we put something in here that would give me a comfort level?”
Rolfes told the commission he would not be able to alter the contract to include a cap or trigger amount but expected the cost of hiring experts would be in the “$5,000 to $10,000 range.” Dickman said he and City Manager Wayne Saunders would be keeping a close eye on developments and expenses. Lowe asked Friszolowski if these steps made him more comfortable with the contract.
“I think we’re all pretty clear I would like something in the contract,” said Friszolowski, laughing.
The motion was then re-read and passed unanimously by the commission.