BROOKSVILLE — Being a longtime, well-known lawyer in a small town conveys certain privileges. Calls tend to be returned sooner; the restaurants around the courthouse know you.
But attorney Joe Mason has learned that longevity does not grant the authority to tinker with the judicial system.
The senior judge in the 5th Judicial Circuit last week issued a scathing admonition to Mason for taking it upon himself to move a case of his from the civil division of the Circuit Court to the appellate level, something only a judge can do.
Mason wants to overturn a Hernando County Commission decision that denied his client, Toucan Partners LLC, permission to expand the Suncoast Rehabilitation Center, an alcohol and drug treatment center in a Spring Hill neighborhood.
Mason filed an appeal in Circuit Court in July and an amended appeal in October arguing in part that just because neighbors object to the center is no reason for the commission to deny the rezoning and expansion.
The so-called styling of the October document was the problem, according to Circuit Judge Victor J. Musleh.
"Without leave of court and without a motion to transfer, (Mason) apparently just created (his) own case number and designation and assigned the case to the Appellate Division of the Circuit Court," Musleh wrote.
The judge cited other procedural problems with Mason's handling of the case thus far and warned that any further effort to change the jurisdiction of the case could result in sanctions against Mason.
He also mentions another case in which Mason was "advised the proper jurisdiction" of cases.
The Hernando County Attorney's Office first noticed the error and sent a letter to Daniel Merritt, the presiding judge of the appellate panel.
"In an effort to further complicate the matter," Musleh wrote, Mason then filed a "response to the county's motion to transfer from appellate division to civil division."
"It is interesting to note," the judge points out, "that the county never filed a motion to transfer and, in fact, the action was never transferred to the appellate division.
"The only person in this whole mess who attempted to have the action transferred was (Mason) who (for whatever reason) thought that by changing the designation that was assigned by the Clerk of the Court the action would automatically transfer to another division of the court of the petitioner's choosing," the judge wrote.
While the county attorney's office does not respond to the specifics of ongoing cases, when asked about the judge's strong language against Mason, assistant county attorney Jon Jouben said, "I've never seen anything like it before in my decadelong career."
Musleh ordered Mason to "properly style all future pleadings and documents" and warns that "any future deviation from this proper designation may result in sanctions."
Mason said he will file a response that will raise the issue of the proper court jurisdiction because he believes the local courts are in error. As for the change in the case designation, Mason said he intended the case to go to the appellate division but the clerk marked the case "CA" to go to the circuit court.
When he filed his amended petition, he said, "I didn't even notice" the "CA" and wrote "AP" instead because that is where he thought it had been filed.
Musleh stated that the case is in the appropriate jurisdiction, which is the jury civil docket of the Circuit Court.
This is not the first time Mason has run into procedural problems. Musleh cited a 2005 case in which Mason "received a lengthy order and explanation" of why a similar action was denied a transfer to the appellate court.
And in another 2004-05 case, Mason was sanctioned by the District Court of Appeal, which ordered Mason to pay the attorneys for the opposing side $500. In this case, Mason represented Weeki Wachee Springs against the Southwest Florida Water Management District.
Mason was chastised for using a smaller font and line spacing on documents so that he could "squeeze" more of his arguments in the 50 pages he was allowed.
The $500 Mason was ordered to pay the opposing attorneys was "in light of attorney's repeated violations and additional work required by opposing counsel," according to a summary of the court's ruling.
The ruling added that Mason could not charge his client for that sanction but had to pay it out of his own pocket.
Mason called the sanction in the 2004-05 case "much ado about nothing." The court, he said, was changing its rules for type size and font and he was just following the rules he thought were in place at the time.
Mason has been in the news recently in another legal matter.
He claims the city of Weeki Wachee owes him at least $1.24 million for his legal services. The city has no money to pay such a bill and legislators have said they are not interested in finding state money to pay that bill.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.