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Legal spat lingers, outlasts his term

One of Ron Schultz's last acts as property appraiser was to ask a judge to clarify a confusing legal point.

Schultz did not seek re-election. Voters in November selected Melanie Hensley, a longtime top staffer in Schultz's office, to be his successor. She is scheduled to be sworn in today.

On Thursday, one of his last days after 14 years in office, Schultz filed a request in circuit court. He wants a judge to clarify whether the Property Appraiser's Office still must pay $185,000 in legal fees to Time Warner Cable (now Bright House Networks).

The case in question began in 1994, court records showed. Circuit Judge Patricia Thomas eventually sided with Time Warner, which had argued that it shouldn't be required to pay ad valorem tax on certain portions of its Citrus County equipment, and Schultz's office had overvalued the rest of its property for tax purposes.

Thomas also ordered Schultz to pay Time Warner's attorney's fees, the records showed. In doing so, she ruled that Schultz knew or should have known that his defense in the case was not supported by material facts or was not supported by applicable law.

An appellate court later sided with Schultz on the equipment issue. A separate appeal, concerning the attorney's fees, is pending. With that appeal unresolved, and the order on attorney's fees still outstanding, Schultz said he felt he had to seek some legal clarity before his term expired.

Specifically, Schultz asked a judge to determine whether his office, considering what the appellate court said on the equipment issue, still owes those fees and $102,000 in costs to Time Warner.

If it does owe the attorney's fees, Schultz has another question: Should the lawyers who represented the Property Appraiser's Office be required to pay half?

When Thomas awarded the attorney's fees, she did so pursuant to a state statute _ 57.105 _ that includes a penalty designed to punish parties that raise unsupported claims or defenses.

According to Schultz's legal filing, the law says the property appraiser's lawyers would be required to pay 50 percent of the prevailing party's attorney's fees unless the court finds that the lawyers acted in good faith and based their decisions on material facts _ later proved to be untrue _ that their client provided.

Schultz's lawyers have made no such claim, and the judge has made no such finding, Schultz's legal filing says.

In fact, he argues, the only thing that changed during the legal dispute was the applicable legal precedent. And the Florida Supreme Court issued that precedent in June 1999, long after the case began.

Denise Lyn and Ben Phipps represented the Property Appraiser's Office in the matters in question. Both declined comment on Monday.