All sides: Keep houseboat case alive
All sides in a Supreme Court case over the fate of a Florida man’s floating home — now destroyed — urged the Justices on Tuesday to go ahead and decide the case. The fact that the houseboat has been sold at auction, and since destroyed, does not make the case an empty pursuit, according to three new briefs filed at the request of the Court. The case is Lozman v. City of Riviera Beach, now scheduled for oral argument on October 1, the opening day of the new Term.
Two weeks ago, the Court asked the houseboat’s former owner, Fane Lozman, along with the city of Riviera Beach and the U.S. Solicitor General (who is supporting Lozman), to submit short new briefs arguing whether the changed factual circumstances made the pending case “moot.” The briefs all said no: Lozman’s new filing is here, the city’s is here, and the Solicitor General’s is here. The Court’s order for further briefing was discussed in this post.
The Court granted review of the case in February, to sort out whether the floating home — attached to a dock and without any capacity to navigate — was legally a “vessel” and its fate thus controlled by maritime law. The city, after a years-long dispute with Lozman over his living quarters tied up at a marina in the Florida community, decided to impose maritime-law financial obligations on Lozman on the theory that the residence was a “vessel.” There is a split in the federal appeals courts on how to define “vessel” in the circumstance of a floating structure that does not navigate and can only be towed over water. Lozman, a fiercely independent challenger of city authorities, took the case on to the Supreme Court after losing in lower courts.
When the city concluded that Lozman would not pay his marina bills and would not cover city services provided to him, the city sued the houseboat itself — the legal technique used when a floating structure is being treated as an object within maritime jurisdiction. After winning its claim that the structure is a vessel, the city obtained a court order requiring that the vessel be sold. It was sold at an auction, with the city being the highest bidder, at $4,100. However, the city did post a $25,000 bond as it litigated the status of the boat, and told lower courts that the posted amount would ultimately be sufficient to cover any ownership claims that Lozman had, if he should ultimately win the case. The money, lawyers argued Tuesday, is a substitute for the houseboat, depending upon how much Lozman can show it was worth at the time the city took it.
Lozman, the city, and the federal government all agreed in their briefs that the posting of the bond, as well as traditional maritime principles, made it clear that the pending case is not moot.
Presumably, the Court will not take action on the case until after it hears oral argument, although it does have the option of finding the case moot and dismissing it before argument, despite the unanimous legal advice of all of those involved.
Disclosure: The Stanford Law School Supreme Court Litigation Clinic, with which some lawyers who write for this blog have continuing relationships, represents Fane Lozman in this case. The author of this blog is not a lawyer, does not have any role in legal practice, and operates independently of the lawyers in their practice.