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Mediation is the goal, but line spacing gets in way

(ran East edition)

As the new year begins, both Weeki Wachee Springs and the Southwest Florida Water Management District say they are determined to work out their differences.

They have agreed to hold mediation meetings, which were ordered by 5th Judicial Circuit Judge Richard Tombrink to avoid excessive litigation.

But first, the two sides have had to work out a few details _ including disputes over the line-spacing of their court documents.

On Dec. 10, Weeki Wachee's counsel was directed to pay $500 to Swiftmud's lawyers due to what the 5th District Court of Appeal called violations of "formatting requirements."

"The petition is not double spaced as required by the rules but, in fact, is 1.5 line spaced, thereby allowing 25 percent more text than permitted by the rule," the opinion said, citing a Swiftmud complaint.

Judges Jacqueline R. Griffin, Robert J. Pleus Jr. and William D. Palmer also agreed with Swiftmud's complaint that Weeki Wachee's line spacing for both the footnotes and the quotations within the petition broke the rules. They were 0.7 line spaced rather than single spaced, allowing 30 percent more text, the opinion said.

The formatting violations allegedly occurred in a 50-page petition filed by Weeki Wachee, which argued that the circuit court lacks jurisdiction in its dispute with the tourist attraction's landlord, Swiftmud.

In the past, Mason has argued that landlord-tenant issues like the Weeki Wachee case should be heard in Hernando County courts.

The Court of Appeal denied Weeki Wachee's petition in its Dec. 10 opinion. It sided with Swiftmud, which raised various complaints about how Weeki Wachee had formatted its petition.

"We just want everybody to be operating on the same footing," Swiftmud spokesman Michael Molligan said. "Everybody should get the same amount of space to make their argument."

Molligan said that cramming more text into a petition than allowed was the equivalent of one side getting more time in court than the other.

In its petition, Swiftmud went on to argue that in another unrelated case in 2003, Weeki Wachee's counsel had failed to comply with formatting requirements for briefs.

Apparently, it was repeated violations that caused the court to take action.

"Normally, this court does not focus on technical requirements set forth in the appellate rules and we have overlooked occasional, inadvertent violations thereof," the opinion said. "However where, as here, a pattern develops and counsel does not appear to appreciate the significance of their actions, we are forced to address those requirement."

Trouble is, Mason insists that his petition meets the spacing requirements, and used the required font size.

He said Swiftmud general counsel William Bilenky was simply mistaken on line spacing problems in Weeki Wachee's petition.

"I have absolutely no idea where Bill (Bilenky) got that idea," Mason said.

Mason said that he has not paid the $500 to Swiftmud counsel and does not plan to do so.

He said there will be a rehearing of the case, but no information on a future court date was immediately available.

At least the two sides could agree on one thing. Both Mason and Molligan said the court's decision to take a stand on line spacing was "unusual."

Mary Spicuzza can be reached at (352) 848-1432 or mspicuzzasptimes.com.

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