Houseboat case may be moot
on Aug 14, 2012 at 3:06 pm
A fascinating Supreme Court case on whether a houseboat tethered to shore, not able to navigate on its own, is nevertheless legally a “vessel” may now be moot since the structure has been destroyed. On Tuesday, noting that a Florida city has bought the houseboat and then destroyed it, the Court ordered the former owner and the city of Riviera Beach to file new briefs on whether those actions end the case as a real controversy. The U.S. Solicitor General, who has been backing the owner, was also asked to file a brief on that issue. The new filings in Lozman v. City of Riviera Beach (docket 11-626) are due in two weeks, on August 28.
The case was granted review on February 21, and is currently scheduled for oral argument on the first day of the new Term, October 1. If the case is found to be moot, the Court would have no authority to decide it, since its power is limited to reviewing live controversies only.
Although the case has mundane facts — a houseboat owner who does not pay rent supposedly due to a marina — it does involve a significant legal principle about maritime law. The dispute, for example, may affect the duties of the Coast Guard as it seeks to promote safety in the waterborne environment. The government has told the Court that, if a lower court decision in the case is allowed to stand on the legal definition of “vessel,” that “would significantly increase the number of large passenger ‘vessels’ that the Coast Guard would be required to inspect,” diverting its efforts and resources away from “maritime safety and security.”
A Floridian, Fane Lozman, bought the two-story floating residence in 2002, and had it towed to North Beach Village in Florida, where it stayed in two marinas until a hurricane destroyed the docks in the second marina where it was moored. In March 2006, Lozman had it towed to a marina in Riviera Beach, and continued to use it as his primary home. The marina was owned by the city, and it supplied the houseboat with electricity, as well as water from a city utility. After three years, the city contended that Lozman had not been paying his dockage rent or for city services. In March 2009, the city told him to pay up, sign a new dockage fee agreement, and improve the structure, or else face a legal claim in admiralty court for trespass and for failure to pay for marine “necessaries.”
Following the usual practice in such maritime cases, the city sued the houseboat itself, and the case became known as “City of Riviera Beach v. That certain unnamed, gray, two story vessel approximately 57 feet in length.” Whether that court had jurisdiction to hear the city’s claims depended upon whether, legally, the houseboat was a “vessel.” The city insisted that it was, Lozman argued that it was not. The city ultimately won in both a federal district court and in the Eleventh Circuit Court.
The district judge concluded that it made no difference that Lozman’s floating home was not intended to be a transportation vehicle, since the prevailing law in the Eleventh Circuit was that any structure that can be towed on the water is a “vessel” for maritime purposes. The judge ordered Lozman to pay $3,039.99 in delinquent dockage payments, plus $1 for “maritime trespass.” Adding in interest and some other fees, the final judgment was for $3,053.26. To cover those assessments, the judge ordered the houseboat to be sold. It was sold at an auction in March 2010, with the city buying it as the highest bidder.
The Court did not learn until Lozman’s lawyers filed their merits brief in May that the houseboat had since been destroyed. The brief mentioned that in a single sentence: “The City subsequently destroyed it.” In July, the city told the Court in its brief that it had tried without success to sell the boat, and that it also could not give it away — both Habitat for Humanity and AMVETS would not accept it as a donation, the city said. “Faced with the high costs of keeping the houseboat, respondent [the city] destroyed it.”
As the Justices and their staffs prepared for oral argument on the case, those later developments obviously caught their attention. In the order issued Tuesday morning, the Court told the two sides and the federal government to file new ten-page briefs on whether either the auction sale of the houseboat or the later destruction of it “render this case moot.” The briefs are to be filed simultaneously by 2 p.m. on Tuesday, August 28.
Tuesday’s court order in Plain English:
When the Court agrees to rule on a case, it usually assumes that the dispute remains a live one, although either the two sides in the case, or the Justices on their own, are under a duty — if there is any doubt about it — to find that the controversy continues, since otherwise the Court can’t decide it. The Constitution itself limits federal courts to deciding “cases or controversies,” and the Court has long held that those words mean cases or controversies that remain active. When the Court learns — as in this case — that later developments have put in doubt whether the live controversy remains, the Court has the option of simply deciding on its own whether to cast aside the case, or else to ask those involved whether it should do so. The Court this time chose to ask the two sides and the federal government’s lawyers for their advice on it. The legal issue is whether the case has become “moot,” which means, in essence, that it is legally dead.
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.