Lawyer sues DeSantis, Hillsborough over emergency orders

The lawsuit in Hillsborough circuit court challenges the constitutionality of a number of orders the governor and local leaders enacted to stem the spread of the coronavirus.
The Lady Justice sculpture stands in front of the Thirteenth Judicial Circuit Court in downtown Tampa. [TIMES | (2017)]
The Lady Justice sculpture stands in front of the Thirteenth Judicial Circuit Court in downtown Tampa. [TIMES | (2017)] [ TIMES (2017) ]
Published April 22, 2020

TAMPA — A Tampa attorney is suing Gov. Ron DeSantis and Hillsborough County leaders in circuit court, challenging the constitutionality of the various orders they have made in the last month to guard against the spread of the coronavirus.

The lawsuit takes aim at both Hillsborough’s safer-at-home order and the statewide stay-at-home order and other emergency measures, alleging they violate a number of rights guaranteed in the Florida and U.S. constitutions.

“This is just something that struck me as beyond the pale,” said attorney Kurt Davis, the plaintiff. “So I figured I had to do something.”

Davis, whose practice focuses on commercial litigation and real estate law, originally filed the suit late last month. His initial complaint challenged the short notice county leaders gave before holding a series of meetings of the Emergency Policy Group and the lack of opportunity for public comment.

“Public access and a reasonable opportunity to be heard at these meetings was unreasonably restricted,” the complaint stated.

He claimed the meetings violated Florida’s Sunshine Law.

On April 8, Davis filed an amended complaint, which roped in DeSantis and made a broader challenge to the state and local orders.

His amended complaint specifies the governor’s executive orders that, among other things, require fitness centers to close, prohibit medical and dental offices from performing non-emergency procedures, make travelers from places like New York City and Louisiana submit to a 14-day quarantine, ban vacation rentals, stop eviction enforcement and restrict people from leaving home except to access essential services and participate in essential activities.

He offers some brief examples of how certain measures affect him. He notes a fitness center membership that he can’t use. He says he is prevented from obtaining medical and dental services that he needs. He states that practicing his profession outside his home is not listed as an essential service or activity.

He also says he is prevented from enforcing an eviction on a residential property where the tenant is delinquent on her rent. The complaint does not identify the tenant or the location of the property.

A spokesman for Hillsborough County declined to comment on the lawsuit because of its pending status. DeSantis’ office did not respond to requests for comment.

While various state and local government actions — like the curfew Hillsborough County enacted and then rescinded last week, or the governor’s order exempting religious gatherings from social distancing requirements — have been met with criticism, Davis’ lawsuit appears to be the first challenge to the constitutionality of the various orders in their entirety.

Asked what measures he thought would be more appropriate to stop COVID-19, Davis said he had no opinion about what the public policy should be.

“I just know that the attempt at public policy here does violate the law and the constitution,” he said.

While Davis is within his rights to bring the lawsuit, his federal constitutional claims are not strong, said Lou Virelli, a professor and expert in constitutional law at Stetson University College of Law.

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In most situations like the pandemic, the government’s interest in protecting public safety and health is very high and the restrictions are fairly narrow, he said.

“Generally these sorts of restrictions are allowed as long as (the government has) a compelling reason to do so,” he said. “And I think it’s fair to say in this situation, they do.”

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