Florida state has on its books a statute that says organizations, individuals, and groups that bring lawsuits based on meritless claims have to pay the attorney’s fees of the people they sue. It’s a form of “loser pays,” and some states have adopted this provision to discourage “frivolous” lawsuits filed purely for political reasons or as tactical attempts to stop public projects from moving forward. Meritless cases can stop projects by creating extensive delays or ratcheting up costs to the point projects are no longer viable. So, Florida tries to mitigate that effect by ensuring that if lawsuits are filed they are grounded in facts or state law.
The statute is getting a test in Martin County, Florida where 1000 Friends of Florida and the Martin County Conservation Alliance sued the county (and others) because they downsized agricultural land. The county reduced the minimum lot size for development in a region designated as agricultural from 20 acres to 2 acres. The environmental groups feared that this would enable development, so they sued the county for failing to protect the habitat and environment. The courts ruled against them because, 1) they didn’t provide evidence of harm because of the County’s action, and 2) the arguments were based on speculation about what future county commissioners would do.
The Florida courts did more than rule against the environmental organizations. They found that the case was meritless. So, they are requiring them to pay the attorney’s fees for the organizations they sued. Environmentalists, needless to say, are crying foul because this ruling could…brace yourself…discourage them from filing future lawsuits.
Importantly, the Florida courts still have a very low bar for filing lawsuits. Florida law, the justices wrote, in Martin County Conservation Alliance et al. v. Martin County et al, “does not require a finding of frivolousness to justify sanctions, but only a finding that the claim lacked a basis in material facts or then existing law.” It seems all environmental groups have to do is make sure their cases have merit and are based in statute and case law. They don’t even have to win.
So, the Florida law, and this ruling specifically, gives plenty of opportunity for enviornmentalists to sue. Their lawsuits just can’t be meritless.