Legal costs in battle for freeway control top $1.6 million

Written by Gabriela Henriquez Stoikow on January 12, 2022


Legal costs in battle for freeway control top $1.6 million

The legal battle for control of five highways operating only in Miami-Dade County has cost the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) $326,469.57 in attorney fees, costs and filing fees paid to law firms or to outside attorneys. For the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority (MDX), which is fighting for its own existence, the legal battle that began in 2019 cost $1.3 million paid only to outside attorneys.

“The department’s in-house attorneys have not logged the time spent providing legal advice to the department in connection with this case,” said Tish Burgher, FDOT communications manager. MDX has only one general counsel and in-house counsel.

“I am MDX’s general counsel and sole attorney, as such I do not personally handle litigation,” MDX’s Carlos Zaldivar said in an email to Miami Today. “All disputes involving MDX are handled by an outside attorney, regardless of the subject matter, so it’s not unusual to hire an outside attorney to handle this matter, more like standard protocol.”

In December, FDOT completed a road project along SR 112/I 195/Julia Tuttle Causeway from east of SR 5/US 1/Biscayne Boulevard to SR 907/Alton Road in the cities of Miami and Miami Beach, an interim bus on-shoulder project estimated to cost $405,802 – $79,332.43 above legal fees spent in litigation.

MDX sent more than 60,000 checks through its Frequent Driver Rewards program in December, totaling $4.8 million, or 3.7 times the amounts spent on the litigation.

The dispute over the $4 billion in assets that MDX operates, including Gratigny Parkway (SR 924), Airport Expressway (SR 112), Dolphin Expressway (SR 836), Don Shula Expressway (SR 874) and Snapper Creek Expressway (SR 878) began in 2019, when the legislature created the Greater Miami Expressway Agency (GMX) to replace MDX and abolished the authority. Governor Ron DeSantis signed it into law and MDX immediately took the matter to court.

The first and original lawsuit was filed by MDX in May 2019, in Leon County Circuit Court. MDX won as Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper determined that the act of the legislature abolishing MDX and creating GMX was unconstitutional.

Nonetheless, the state filed two appeals and won the second relating to the doctrine of public standing when the First District Court of Appeals determined that MDX did not have “standing” to sue on its own behalf. an act of the legislature abolishing its existence, says a press note from Eugene Stearns, of the law firm Stearns Weaver Miller.

Miami Today reached the Florida House of Representatives, a party involved in the 2019-20 litigation, but at press time there was no response on how much the House spent on legal fees.

The First District Court did not consider the legality of the creation of GMX and the abolition of MDX. Miami-Dade County commissioners later passed an ordinance abolishing GMX and reclaiming its self-governing powers, giving the county protections against targeted state legislation.

Mr. Stearns previously told Miami Today that local self-government gives the county government “unequivocal” power to create or eliminate agencies, including those created by the legislature.

MDX filed a new lawsuit on October 28, 2021, the same day GMX held its first meeting since May of that year in FDOT District Four, Fort Lauderdale, Broward County. In the new case, MDX is defending its rule of origin and intends to seek a ruling that the authority has ownership, control and title to the $4 billion in assets it holds. exploits.

In fiscal 2021 alone, MDX paid law firm Stearns Weaver Miller Weissler Alhadeff & Sitterson PA $45,456.05 for litigation of the case. The highest bill paid by the authority was for fiscal year 2019, at $779,052.26.

GMX argued in court that MDX lacked the legal capacity to sue because it was dissolved on July 3, 2019, an argument dismissed by Judge William Thomas of Florida’s Eleventh Judicial Circuit, who adjudicates. now the dispute between MDX and the members of the board of directors of GMX. Further, when MDX entered into a transfer agreement with FDOT in 1996, the authority “acquired full jurisdiction and control over the operation, maintenance, and finances of the system in perpetuity.”

But the order with the denial of a preliminary injunction, Judge Thomas wrote that “ownership of the roads was never transferred to MDX; only operation and control have been transferred by these contracts.

“The Rule of the House [amendment and charter in the 1950s] transferred the power of the Legislature to pass local bills and special laws applicable only to Dade County, from the state to the Dade County Board of Commissioners,” Judge Thomas wrote.

In three orders sent by Judge Thomas on December 30, MDX won two victories as the judge recognized Miami-Dade County as a necessary party in the litigation and denied GMX’s motion to dismiss the case, but MDX did not obtain a motion for a preliminary injunction. this would maintain the status quo while the courts render a final decision in the case – which can be seen as a victory for GMX.

MDX and GMX are due to meet again in court on January 18. MDX already has a public board meeting scheduled for January 28, while GMX still does not have a meeting scheduled.

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