January 13, 2016
Residents of a Miami trailer park who face eviction in February won a round Wednesday when a Florida appeals court revived a tenant's lawsuit against the sale and closing of the park.
The state's Third District Court of Appeal reversed the dismissal of appellant Barbara Falkinburg's suit and instructed the trial court to speed up consideration of her claims for declaratory and injunctive relief. Falkinburg contends the Village of El Portal violated state law by signing off on a deal to close the park without conducting a relocation study.
“The residents of Little Farm Mobile Home Park are pleased the court recognized that the Village of El Portal violated their rights and are looking forward to a fair and speedy resolution in the trial court,” Falkinburg's lawyer, Evian White of Legal Services of Greater Miami Inc., told Law360 following the ruling.
Falkinburg and two other Little Farm residents filed suit in April against El Portal, former park owner Biscayne Park Acquisition Group LLC, buyer Wealthy Delight LLC and its affiliate Fullview International Group LLC, claiming a settlement agreement forgiving $8 million the park owed for environmental and other code violations in exchange for a $575,000 cash payment to the town ran afoul of the Florida Mobile Home Act.
The residents argue that the town, through a part of the agreement requiring the owner to begin closing the trailer park within 60 days of signing the deal, was avoiding a provision in the state law requiring it to conduct a relocation study before allowing a mobile home park to close or be relocated.
The Little Farm park features 240 lots, with about 165 rented at the time the suit was filed, according to the complaint. Wednesday's opinion noted that at least 85 residents have already been evicted.
Falkinburg and the others asked the trial court to invalidate the settlement agreement, grant an injunction barring closure of Little Farm, and grant a statutory attorney's fees award under the Mobile Home Act.
El Portal conceded that it had not conducted any study into the availability of other mobile home parks or other alternative housing for the Little Farm residents before signing the settlement agreement.
Village Counsel Joseph S. Geller of Greenspoon Marder acknowledged during oral arguments Jan. 4 in the Third District that the agreement constituted an “official action” by El Portal. But he insisted that the deal did not meet the specific conditions of the law and that it did not advance closing the trailer park but merely said that the owner or any future buyer would have to conform with state laws.
“There is nothing to unwind that moves half an inch toward removing these people from their homes,” Geller told the three-judge panel of the suit's aim to undo the settlement agreement.
But the appeals court agreed with Falkinburg's interpretation.
“The settlement agreement required the closure of Little Farm and indicated the need for the “demolition” of the mobile homes in the park,” the court said.
The court also noted that Wealthy Delights admited in its answer brief that the settlement agreement provided for the park's closure.
The court said that Falkinburg's allegations that the settlement agreement required the “removal or relocation” of Little Farm residents were sufficiently pledged and the suit should not have been dismissed.
The appeals court noted that it did not rule on whether the defendants other than El Portal were appropriate parties, saying that is for the trial court to determine.
Counsel for El Portal and Wealthy Delight did not immediately respond to requests for commentWednesday.
Judges Vance E. Salter, Thomas Logue and Ivan Fernandez sat for the Third District.
The residents are represented by Evian L. White and Jeffrey M. Hearne of Legal Services of Greater Miami Inc., Charles F. Elsesser Jr. of Community Justice Project Inc. and Jeffrey B. Crockett of Coffey Burlington PL.
The Village of El Portal is represented by Joseph S. Geller and Jason D. Silver of Greenspoon Marder.
Wealthy Delight and Fullview are represented Howard L. Kuker.
Biscayne Park Acquisition Group is represented by Jennifer Tolston of Kriss & Feuerstein.
The case is Falkinburg et al. v. Village of El Portal et al., case number 3D15-2335, in the Third District Court of Appeal of Florida.