A Florida federal jury on Thursday found a Miami city commissioner liable for $63.5 million in damages over using his office and government resources to systematically target a pair of business owners after they supported a political opponent during a runoff election in 2017.
The jury handed down its verdict in Fort Lauderdale on Thursday after beginning its deliberations Wednesday afternoon, finding Miami City Commissioner Joe Carollo liable for using his office to target businesses associated with Little Havana developers William Fuller and Martin Pinilla II after they supported Carollo's opponent while running for the District 3 position in November 2017.
Carollo, who previously served as Miami's mayor and commissioner, was accused of contacting city officials to shut down a rally held on a property connected to Fuller and Pinilla in 2017 and continued to target businesses connected to them with bogus code violations and various government actions.
The jury found that Carollo had used his office to violate the First Amendment rights of Fuller and Pinilla and awarded $8.6 million in compensatory damages and $25.7 million in punitive damages to Fuller and $7.3 million in compensatory damages and $21.9 million in punitive damages to Pinilla.
"Not only was he a bully, but he was also a coward who used every legal remedy to take us all the way to the Supreme Court hoping that he would break us so that we wouldn't arrive today," Fuller said, referring to Carollo. "The small group of select individuals that he has worked with in the city of Miami, they're also corrupt. Each and every one of them came up here over the last few days and lied and invented these stories to be able to support this man so that they could protect their jobs. And once and for all it feels great to finally smush that cucaracha!"
Pinilla called the day historic and said the jury's verdict sends a "loud and clear" message to politicians in America that they can't abuse their power.
"Joe Carollo, what he has done to us, to our businesses, to our employees is wrong," Pinilla said. "He does not deserve to be an elected official."
Mason A. Pertnoy of Krinzman Huss Lubetsky Feldman & Hotte and Benedict P. Kuehne of Kuehne Davis Law PA, representing Carollo, issued a statement saying they are disappointed with the result but that their client will continue to represent his district.
"Unlike the plaintiffs, who seem to have now resorted to disparaging comments about the commissioner and city of Miami employees, the commissioner will continue to serve all citizens of District 3 and the city of Miami fairly and equally in protecting health, safety and quality of life," the statement said. "Commissioner Carollo will seek to exercise all legal rights available to him including appellate review."
Fuller and Pinilla sued Carollo in 2018, alleging that the commissioner engaged in systematic retaliation starting in 2017, when Carollo ran against Alfonso Leon in the election for commissioner.
The harassment began when Carollo used contacts in the city government to shut down rallies for Leon on the plaintiffs' properties during the 2017 runoff election, according to the plaintiffs' suit. Carollo ultimately beat Leon by just over 350 votes.
After Carollo won the election, the plaintiffs said Carollo continued to target Little Havana businesses associated with them. Such businesses include nightclub Ball & Chain and Union Beer Store, which sit along the touristy section of Miami's 8th Street.
Carollo attorney Pertnoy said his client was simply representing his district and addressed what he called a history permitting violations going back to 2012.
While testifying on the stand, Carollo accused the plaintiffs of trying to "de-Latinize" his district.
"This was about following the rules and he was going to expose them for that," Pertnoy said during closing arguments Wednesday. "This lawsuit, First Amendment retaliation, it's Fuller's fantasy. It is a concoction of Fuller's fantasy in order to create a defense against the commissioner and the city for enforcing the rules that [the plaintiffs] refuse to follow."
In addition, Pertnoy argued that it wasn't Fuller and Pinilla themselves who were engaged in protected speech and weren't the ones that filed the ethics complaint against Carollo, but rather their development business, Barlington Group.
Courtney Caprio of AXS Law Group, representing the plaintiffs, told the jury on Wednesday to not be fooled by that argument because the business is essentially the same as the plaintiffs. Caprio's co-counsel, Rossana Arteaga-Gomez of AXS Law Group, said the case was a hard-fought battle that included the efforts of the entire firm.
The retaliation against her clients included defaming them by calling them "frauds" and "money launderers" in public, according to Caprio.
"The jury sent a message today to every elected official in the U.S. that they cannot abuse their power to punish citizens who oppose them," Caprio told Law360.
The plaintiffs are represented by Jeffrey W. Gutchess, Rossana Arteaga-Gomez, Joanna Niworowski, Courtney Anne Caprio and Amanda Suarez of AXS Law Group.
Carollo is represented by Mason A. Pertnoy of Krinzman Huss Lubetsky Feldman & Hotte, Marc D. Sarnoff of Shutts & Bowen LLP, Benedict P. Kuehne of Kuehne Davis Law PA and Amber C. Dawson of Cole Scott & Kissane PA.
The case is Fuller et al. v. Carollo et al., case number 1:18-cv-24190, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida.