Katzman, Wasserman, Bennardini & Rubinstein, P.A.
Gets Jury to Award $1.2M to Couple Bullied by Mayor

Katzman-Steven-bell

Case: Richard D. Barfield v. Town of Jupiter Inlet Colony, et al
Case no: 502007CA001901XXXXMB
Description: Civil rights
Filing Date: Feb. 9, 2007
Judge: Palm Beach Circuit Judge Janis Brustares Keyser
Plaintiffs attorney: Steven M. Katzman, Katzman Wasserman Bennardini, Boca Raton
Defense attorneys: Harriett Lewis and Gary Oldehoff, Lewis Stroud & Deutsch, Boca Raton; Michael T. Burke, Johnson, Anselmo, Murdoch, Burke, Piper & Hochman, Fort Lauderdale
Trial dates: July 14-Aug. 4, 2014
Verdict amount: $1.2 million

Details:

In September 2004, Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne damaged the home of Richard and Marilyn Barfield in Jupiter Inlet Colony. They had to move out while repairs were made. For years afterward, the town’s code enforcement office delayed repairs by issuing citations–800 in all. The couple claimed the citations were a form of harassment issued at the instigation of a mayor upset with statements Marilyn Barfield made against him while she served a term as a town commissioner. They claimed the police chief was complicit, in effect acting as the mayor’s enforcer. The couple filed suit on First, Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment claims.

While the civil lawsuit was being litigated, the citations continued. The fines totaled more than $100,000. In a separate action, the Barfields appealed the citations. A circuit court appellate panel reversed the citations for the Barfields in November 2008.

Plaintiff’s Case:

The evidence consisted largely of the Barfields’ testimony about Marilyn Barfield’s dispute with former Mayor John Zuccarelli and former Police Chief Joseph Benevento, who were co-defendants, and municipal records, Katzman said. The jury was told Marilyn Barfield publicly criticized the town for keeping its money in a bank where Zuccarelli was a shareholder and she considered him responsible for a construction permit fee rate she thought was excessive and punitive.

Katzman went into detail on the fines imposed on the Barfields–making a case for selective enforcement–and the circuit court appeal that followed.

The jury was not told Barfield campaigned to have Zuccarelli voted out of office for knowingly hiring a convicted sex offender for a private business. According to news reports from February 2008, Zuccarelli hired a 62-year-old sex offender to file insurance claims at his exotic car dealership, Palm Beach Motor Sports. This became news when the employee was arrested for failing to register when he moved into a Tequesta hotel owned by Zuccarelli.

The judge barred mention of the sex offender incident as prejudicial, Katzman said. However, Barfield testified that when she tried to apologize to Zuccarelli about their past battles, he replied she would never get back into her house, Katzman said.

A side issue was the Barfields’ claim that the town was negligent for not maintaining a drainage system, which was blamed for causing much of the damage to their home, Katzman said. Ultimately, it took the Barfields six years to move back into a house that they maintain could have been repaired in 18 months.

Defense Case:

Lewis and Oldehoff, defense attorneys for Zuccarelli and Benevento, did not respond to requests for comment by deadline.

Their case consisted mainly of general denials that there was anything selective about hundreds of citations issued against the Barfields, Katzman said.

In considering economic damages, Zuccarelli denied the plaintiffs’ claim that his net worth was about $50 million. He claimed he was worth less than $20 million, Katzman said.

Outcome:

The jury found Zuccarelli intentionally violated the Barfields’ right to free speech and equal protection by selectively enforcing town ordinances. The jury said the enforcement was discriminatory and improper. They awarded $1 million in damages against Zuccarelli for the Barfields’ pain and suffering and $100,000 in punitive damages.

The jury found no wrongdoing against Benevento but made him liable for $50,000 in punitive damages. The town was found negligent on the drainage system complaint, and the jury awarded $76,000.
The jury found Zuccarelli’s and Benevento’s actions were not the result of any municipal policy.

Comments:

“One of our closing arguments was that at some point the code enforcement hearings were used to bully the Barfields, to intimidate them into dropping the lawsuit. We went chronologically–here’s when they filed the lawsuit and here’s when they had code enforcement hearings, and the administrative rulings were reversed. We asked the jury to connect the dots,” Katzman said.

Post-verdict:

Keyser set a hearing for post-trial motions Oct. 17. Katzman is seeking the entry of a final judgment. The docket shows Zuccarelli and Benevento are asking to set aside the verdict or get an order for a new trial. Keyser also must decide whether to allow the $50,000 award against Benevento to stand without a finding of liability. Burke is seeking setoffs because the town prevailed on numerous allegations.