Ahoy, justices! Floating home case winner back to high court

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Posted: Mar 26, 2017 3:59 PM
Ahoy, justices! Floating home case winner back to high court

RIVIERA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Four years ago, Fane Lozman won an improbable longshot victory when the U.S. Supreme Court agreed with him that his floating home was a house, not a vessel subject to seizure by a Florida city.

The justices set a new national legal standard: Not everything that floats is a boat.

It was far from certain that the nation's highest court would even take his case, and the verdict in January 2013 seemed a resounding victory for the little guy in battle with local officials. Now Lozman is asking the justices to enforce their ruling by forcing the city pay him legal fees and reimburse him for the home's value after it was seized and destroyed.

Lozman's 60-by-12-foot floating home had no engines, sails or rudder. It had to be towed to a Riviera Beach marina where Lozman took up residence in 2006 before becoming embroiled in a fight with that Florida city over its plans to turn the marina over to a developer. Lozman said the city's actions were in retaliation for his vocal opposition.

The city sought to evict him and, when that failed, sued under maritime law in federal court to have the floating home seized as a vessel. After a federal judge sided with the city in 2010, it had the home destroyed — launching the legal battle all the way to the Supreme Court.

Lozman contends in new filings that the city should reimburse him the estimated $165,000 value of the floating home destroyed, plus $200,000 in legal fees. The same district judge and appeals court whose rulings were overturned by the Supreme Court justices have essentially told Lozman to take a long walk on a short pier.

To Lozman, the rulings rejecting reimbursement fly in the face of the original Supreme Court decision, forcing him to return for a second longshot.

"When the Supreme Court says something, it's not for the lower courts to blow off their mandate," said Lozman, 55, a former U.S. Marine Corps aviator and commodity trading entrepreneur. "That's what is happening. The lower courts are punishing me for winning the case.

"I think I've got a wonderful shot for the Supreme Court to say, 'you know what, we're going to make things right.'"

Any case faces long odds to reach the Supreme Court, which hears only a fraction of the thousands of petitions it receives each year. Lozman is representing himself and wrote his own filing with the court, which might increase his odds, some legal experts say.

"The Supreme Court takes very few cases. The court is looking for important cases involving key legal issues," said Michael Allan Wolf, a University of Florida law professor. But because Lozman has been before the high court before, "it might give him an advantage."

The case has become famous, in part because of the colorful language Justice Stephen Breyer used in the 7-2 majority ruling in 2013.

"Not every floating structure is a 'vessel,' " Breyer wrote. "To state the obvious, a wooden washtub, a plastic dishpan, a swimming platform on pontoons, a large fishing net, a door taken off its hinges, or Pinocchio (when inside the whale) are not 'vessels.' "

The decision meant that federal maritime law could not be applied in disputes involving the estimated 10,000 floating homes nationwide plus hundreds of larger waterborne structures such as gambling casinos docked along rivers. Instead, such structures must be governed by state law that offers greater protection to homeowners and businesses, the Supreme Court ruled.

Riviera Beach officials didn't respond to emails seeking comment. In court papers, they have successfully argued that the city doesn't owe Lozman any money because it was not acting in "bad faith" when the home was seized and destroyed under the law at the time.

"Lozman has failed to prove even a shred of bad faith on the city's part," its attorneys wrote in one filing.

The Supreme Court could decide any time whether to take up Lozman's latest appeal.

Meanwhile, he plans to build a floating home community on 25 acres (10 hectares) of mostly submerged land he purchased along the Intracoastal Waterway north of West Palm Beach — property he calls "Renegade." A large sign on the property proclaims "U.S. Supreme Court Winner" and features a bald eagle wrapped in an American flag.

"The Supreme Court case opened up a whole new world for floating homes," Lozman said during a recent visit to the property, watching as a pelican dove for fish. "I love living on the water ... It's become a part of my life."

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Follow Curt Anderson on Twitter: http://twitter.com/Miamicurt