TALLAHASSEE — Pointing to what they called “baseless” legal arguments, lawyers for Gov. Ron DeSantis have urged an appeals court to sanction a Northwest Florida attorney who filed a lawsuit to try to force DeSantis to close beaches to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
DeSantis’ lawyers filed an 11-page document Friday at the 1st District Court of Appeal contending that Santa Rosa Beach attorney Daniel Uhlfelder filed a frivolous appeal after a circuit judge ruled against him in the beach-closure case.
The Tallahassee-based appeals court last month rejected the appeal and raised the possibility of sanctioning Uhlfelder and attorneys who represented him. It subsequently said DeSantis’ lawyers could file arguments on the issue.
“The many hours spent by this court and the attorneys of the Executive Office of the Governor on this appeal could have been spent on innumerable other pressing matters related to the health, welfare, and safety of Floridians,” DeSantis’ lawyers wrote in the document Friday. “Appellant (Uhlfelder) knew or should have known that filing this appeal was frivolous. Appellant and his counsel should be sanctioned accordingly.”
But Uhlfelder and his attorneys in a Nov. 27 court document disputed that the appeal was frivolous or filed in bad faith. They focused, in part, on comments that Leon County Circuit Judge Kevin Carroll made in April when he ruled against Uhlfelder in the case.
As an example, they quoted Carroll as saying that Uhlfelder “has an understandable concern that he has raised here, and I believe he has pursued this matter in good faith and is seeking what he believes to be an appropriate response to the COVID crisis.”
“The trial court explicitly recognized Mr. Uhlfelder’s legitimate ‘concern for the people of the state of Florida,’” the Nov. 27 document said. “While the learned trial judge did not explicitly direct Mr. Uhlfelder to take the appeal for which he and his lawyers now must show cause why they should not be sanctioned, the trial court plainly encouraged the appeal. Thus encouraged, Mr. Uhlfelder promptly instituted an appeal.”
Uhlfelder filed the lawsuit in late March, contending that the governor should be required to close beaches statewide and issue a “safer at home” order to prevent the spread of the virus. DeSantis issued a “safer at home” order but refused to close beaches statewide, though some local governments temporarily imposed beach closures.
Carroll rejected the lawsuit, saying, in part, that “second-guessing” DeSantis’ actions about beach closures and stay-at-home orders would violate separation-of-powers restrictions established by the Constitution.
Uhlfelder has drawn national media attention during the pandemic by dressing as the Grim Reaper and criticizing the state’s handling of COVID-19 — actions that DeSantis’ lawyers cited in a footnote in Friday’s document.
DeSantis’ lawyers described the appeal as an “axiomatic example of abuse of the justice system. Appellant’s empty political posturing warrants repercussions.”
If the appeals court decides to impose sanctions, they could include requiring Uhlfelder and his lawyers to pay legal fees.