Judge grants The Capitolist’s motion to unseal secret Everglades Foundation lawsuit

by | Aug 3, 2022

 

  • A Miami circuit court judge granted a motion to intervene and unseal documents in the Everglades Foundation lawsuit against Tom Van Lent
  • The motion, filed by The Capitolist and joined by Florida Bulldog, resulted in the unsealing of 19-page complaint detailing allegations against Van Lent
  • Van Lent, the Everglades Foundation former chief scientist, has denied any wrongdoing in the case
  • A separate motion seeking sanctions against the Everglades Foundation was filed by open government advocate Michael Barfield
  • The case is currently set for trial on September 1st

Late Monday, a Miami-Dade Circuit judge granted a motion to unseal a 19-page complaint filed by the Everglades Foundation against its former chief scientist, Thomas Van Lent.  The lawsuit had been sealed since it was filed in early April.

The judge in the case, Carlos Lopez, granted a motion to intervene filed by The Capitolist, which was later joined by the non-profit Florida Bulldog, an investigative digital news site. The motion was brought after the Everglades Foundation argued that Van Lent had taken sensitive scientific data with him when he resigned and went to work at a competing environmental activist group. The Foundation filed its own motion, granted by Lopez, to seal the court records on the same day as the lawsuit, which temporarily barred the public from accessing the records.

Van Lent has denied any wrongdoing in the case. In a court filing, his attorney described the Everglades Foundation’s allegations as “nothing more than Plaintiff seeking to harass and punish Dr. Van Lent for his decision to resign.”

Aside from a few details concerning forensic measures to document the Everglades Foundation’s allegations of theft and destruction of documents, the newly unsealed records don’t reveal much new information. But the victory means that the Everglades Foundation will no longer be able to automatically hide evidence from public scrutiny if or when such evidence is turned over through discovery.

The Foundation has alleged that the Van Lent either took or destroyed reams of scientific data that the Everglades Foundation claims is proprietary. But whether or not the court will agree that they are “trade secrets” that qualify for a court ordered seal will be determined on a case-by-case basis, rather than filed under an already existing seal.

“The Everglades Foundation will attempt to seal documents that it needs to prove its case against Van Lent,” said Edward Birk, who represented The Capitolist and Florida Bulldog in the case. “The Everglades Foundation is now on notice that the public will not leave unchallenged any effort to seal documents that doesn’t meet the stringent standards for keeping even small segments of court cases in secret.”

A separate emergency motion to intervene seeks sanctions against the Everglades Foundation. The motion was filed July 30th in the case by Michael Barfield, arguing that the court acted improperly in sealing the case to begin with, and that the Foundation failed to follow court rulings in asking for its lawsuit to be sealed. Barfield is a private citizen with a history of championing open government principles.

“The emergency motion to seal was not made in good faith, failed to contain the required certification, and was not supported by a sound legal or factual basis,” Barfield wrote.

The next scheduled hearing in the case is set for September 1st, when the court will take up a motion by the Everglades Foundation seeking a declaration of contempt against Van Lent, whom they allege has not complied with the injunction granted by the court.

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