The Biscayne Times

Jun 25th
Law & Order & Aventura PDF Print E-mail
Written by Jay Beskin -- BT Contributor   
January 2014

The city protects its manager, continues a feud with an HOA, and helps a fence-jumper in distress

IPix_JayBeskin_1-14t takes a long time for lawsuits to wend their way through the court system. The plaintiff files the complaint, the defendant states that the plaintiff hasn’t made a case. The plaintiff amends the complaint to surmount the defendant’s objections.

The plaintiff or defendant, or both, then claim in a motion for summary judgment that there are no important facts in dispute, and that the moving party is entitled to win based upon the law. If the judge denies the motion for summary judgment, there is endless discovery to find out what the facts really are: requests for admissions of facts, interrogatories, depositions, notices to produce.

On and on it will go until if, on the eve of trial, the parties settle; or if not, the actual trial. The trial is supposed to settle the matter, unless the losing party believes that the trial judge made an error that affected the trial’s result.

Then the losing party appeals the verdict. There are the notice of appeal, the appealing party’s brief, the respondent’s brief, the appealing party’s reply brief to the respondent’s brief, and then the oral argument before the court.

Almost 14 months ago, Katherine Murphy, the former principal of the Aventura City of Excellence charter school, persuaded a jury of her peers to award her $155 million against the City of Aventura and city manager Eric Soroka for harassment and unjust termination that ruined Murphy’s health and reputation. It was one of the largest verdicts ever against a municipality, and the fourth-largest jury verdict in the United States in 2012.

The verdict included $500,000 in punitive damages assessed against Soroka specifically. Not even a week after the trial, though, the judge overturned the jury’s verdict and left Murphy with nothing. Of course, the judge’s ruling supported the city’s defense that neither the city nor Soroka had engaged in any impropriety. To Murphy and her lawyers, the ruling was grievously flawed and Murphy filed an appeal. We still await the decision of the appeals court.

Curiously, this past July 17, the Aventura City Commission did something that belies its own position. Someone is nervous and wants to hedge his bets. By a vote of 6-1 (Mayor Susan Gottlieb in the minority), the commission amended Soroka’s employment agreement to provide that in the event that he loses the punitive damages portion ($500,000) of the appeal, the city will pay for any amounts assessed against him.

In other words, if the appeals court finds that Soroka acted badly -- so badly, in fact, that he costs the city tens of millions of dollars -- the city will reward him by ensuring that he will never be out of pocket for even one cent. Aventura tax dollars will be hard at work for its residents!

Another significant lawsuit in which the city is a defendant concerns the proposed development of a residential high-rise on one of the two spoil islands just northeast of Williams Island. The Williams Island Homeowners Association filed suit, contending that Aventura failed to follow its own ordinances when the city manager determined back in 2006 that developer Gary Cohen could construct a 16- to 20-story building on property he owns.

Aventura’s original city commission, of which I was a member, zoned the island for single-family detached houses, but if Cohen could prove to the city in 1999 that he had vested rights for a higher density, then the city would be obligated to respect those vested rights. The Williams Island HOA contends that the city manager’s determination of vested rights in 2006 was seven years too late. According to one Williams Island HOA official, a city official characterized the suit as a slam dunk for both Aventura and Cohen.

Well, so far neither the city nor Cohen has scored a single point. Aventura’s motions to dismiss the HOA’s complaint and for summary judgment have been denied. The parties will now slug it out through the discovery process.

In November a different lawsuit was filed, not against Aventura, but against a member of Aventura royalty, Jeffery Soffer. Jeffery is the son of Donald Soffer, who is the son of Harry Soffer, the founder of Turnberry Associates. Jeffery has been much in the news recently for his buy-out of his Dubai partner’s interest in the Fontainebleau Hotel. The lawsuit for $100 million in damages was brought by the heirs of tax lawyer Lance Valdez, who allege that Jeffery was attempting to fly a helicopter in which Valdez and others were passengers. The chopper crashed and killed Valdez in the Bahamas in November 2012. Jeffery is not a licensed helicopter pilot.

The suit also alleges that, in an attempt to avoid personal liability to the Valdez family, Soffer conspired with certain of his employees to persuade Valdez’s widow to accept an insurance settlement of $2 million and to sign a full release -- without informing her that Soffer was piloting the craft. Since the litigation process for this lawsuit is only just beginning, the proceedings may seriously distract Jeffery from his recent efforts to persuade the Florida legislature that it should grace the Fontainebleau with legalized gambling.

Finally, here’s a story about the Aventura Police Department that could make Ripley’s Believe It or Not!

An Aventura resident inadvertently leaves his wallet on a bench at the Waterways Dog Park at closing time. After the park is locked, the resident realizes he doesn’t have his wallet, which is essential for an out-of-town trip early the next morning. The resident calls the police department and asks if an officer is available to retrieve the wallet. The police responder replies that the police department doesn’t have the key to the park, and that the resident will have to wait until the morning when the park reopens.

The resident asks, “The police department does not have the key to the park?” The police department responds, “We do not have the key to the park.”

The resident then states that he cannot wait until the park reopens and informs the operator that he intends to jump the fence to get his wallet. Three squad cars containing five police officers converge on the park. The five officers watch the resident jump the fence. One officer is kind enough to shine a spotlight on the pathway from the fence to the bench.

The resident jumps the fence, finds his wallet, and then jumps back from the park. The officers all have a good chuckle. Aventura tax dollars hard at work for its residents! Perhaps from now on, Aventura will leave the key to the park under the doormat.

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