Mayor: $15,000 payment saves untold legal fees
By Steve Plunkett
Gulf Stream and Martin O’Boyle have resolved the nine remaining lawsuits between them, with the town admitting that it violated the state’s Public Records Act in four cases and paying its litigious resident $15,000 to drop five others.
Both sides will go to mediation in hopes of deciding how much Gulf Stream will pay O’Boyle’s attorneys in the four cases settled in his favor. Each party will pay its own legal bills in the five dismissed suits.
“This is a business decision, and one that the [Town] Commission believes serves the best interests of the town by capping all legal fees,” Mayor Scott Morgan said as he announced the settlement Dec. 14.
The nine cases in the settlement were all that were left of 44 lawsuits that arose from more than 2,500 requests for public records by O’Boyle and resident Chris O’Hare, Morgan said.
The town and O’Hare signed a settlement in June 2017.
“In fiscal year ’17-18, we secured dismissals or victories in seven public records cases with one case decided adversely to the town,” the mayor said. “Previously, the town prevailed or secured dismissals in another 27 cases.”
O’Boyle and the town will continue to litigate the amount Gulf Stream must pay O’Boyle’s attorneys for the case he won. His lawyers have said they are owed more than $650,000; the town’s attorneys contend their rivals should get no more than $20,000.
Morgan credited Gulf Stream’s aggressive posture in the cases as essential to reaching the settlement and in changing state law on public records requests. Now judges in Florida can rule a request “improper” or “frivolous,” making the requestor liable for an agency’s attorney fees. Before, even if the agency won it still had to pay its own fees in all cases.
O’Boyle said what he considers biased news coverage of his lawsuits meant it took more time to settle the disputes.
“They would have been [resolved] a long time ago if The Coastal Star hadn’t written all those hit pieces which emboldened the town,” O’Boyle said.
Morgan said the settlement of any suit benefits both sides.
“This resolution hopefully brings an end to the public records abuse and the litigation abuse that this town has been subjected to. In that sense this is a win for the town,” Morgan said. “From Mr. O’Boyle’s standpoint, it brings an end to his emotional involvement, his expenses, and I think it’s a win for him in that sense as well.”
O’Boyle disputed the mayor’s characterization of his records requests as abuse.
“I don’t know how they can say it’s frivolous when they admitted that they wrongfully withheld documents in violation of the law,” O’Boyle said.
The town would have been better off paying someone $35,000 a year to handle such requests rather than spend hundreds of thousands on attorney fees, O’Boyle added. “I’m delighted that they have finally admitted wrongdoing,” he said.
As part of the settlement O’Boyle agreed to pay $250 upfront when he asks for public records in the future, with the money returned to him minus the town’s costs of responding to his request.
This “facilitation fee” was also in Gulf Stream’s settlement with O’Hare.
O’Boyle and O’Hare started flooding the town with requests for public records in 2013, eventually making more than 2,500 requests and filing dozens of lawsuits. The town raised property taxes 40 percent to pay for outside lawyers and additional staff and equipment to handle the requests.