DUNEDIN — A federal court upheld the City of Dunedin’s decision to issue almost $30,000 in code violation fines in 2018 to a homeowner for an overgrown lawn.
Jim Ficken sued Dunedin in May 2019 after the city agreed to foreclose on his home, according to court records. He and his lawyers argued Dunedin’s fines were excessive and given with no notice.
After a two-year legal battle, a judge from the Middle District of Florida ruled on Monday that the 71-year-old will have to pay up. Ficken said he plans to appeal the court’s decision.
“The city’s behavior toward Jim is outrageous,” read a statement from Ficken’s attorney, Ari Bargil. “This ruling emboldens code enforcement departments across the state to impose crippling financial penalties and it empowers them to do so without first notifying a property owner that they are potentially going to be fined.”
The City of Dunedin has defended the fines. Local officials said Ficken was a repeat code violator in 2015 — subjecting him to $500 per-day fines for future violations, such as having grass that grows taller than 10 inches.
Ficken claims he wasn’t properly notified about the fines. He said he had left Dunedin for two weeks in July 2018 — the same time the fines were first issued by the city — to manage his mother’s estate. During that time, the man who mowed his lawn, Russ Kellum, died. When Ficken got back and tried to mow his overgrown lawn himself, his mower broke, the lawsuit said.
It was nearly two months before Ficken had any idea he owed the city tens of thousands of dollars, he said during a press conference in 2019. When the bill from the city arrived, it totaled $29,833.50.
Ficken was ordered in August 2019 to attend a hearing with the Code Enforcement Board. He missed the hearing because he was in South Carolina to manage another issue with his mother’s estate, he said.
The board met without him on Sept. 4 of that year and determined his fine would stand.
Despite losing the initial lawsuit Monday, Ficken’s case has sparked some change in Dunedin. The city announced this week that it has modified its previous code enforcement policies to put a higher emphasis on compliance over enforcement.
Still, Ficken said he isn’t done fighting his fines until he has exhausted every possible option.
“What happened to me is wrong and I will continue to fight,” he said.
The City of Dunedin’s full statement about the lawsuit:
“The City of Dunedin is committed to protecting the health and safety of our citizens, and public and private investments in the community through fair and equitable policies consistent with the applicable law. While the City has prevailed in this case, the City has undertaken a thorough and careful analysis and review of its code enforcement policies and procedures. The current policies reflect modifications emphasizing compliance over enforcement. The Federal District Court has issued a thorough and detailed judgment endorsing the City’s legal defenses to Mr. Ficken’s case. We appreciate the time the Court took to carefully review the record and legal arguments to reach its conclusions based on an informed understanding of the relevant facts and law. The Federal District Court’s order held the City did not violate Mr. Ficken’s state or federal constitutional right to due process or impose unlawful fines. This is consistent with the legal findings before the City’s Code Enforcement Board, the only other body which has issued an order in this case.”