Dunedin asks court to dismiss unmowed lawn lawsuit

The city of Dunedin is responding to a lawsuit filed by a homeowner facing nearly $30,000 in fines because the grass in his yard grew too high for too long.

It's a story that attracted nationwide attention. Now, the city is asking the courts to dismiss the lawsuit.

Last summer, Jim Ficken was out of town, handling his late mother's estate. He paid a friend to cut his lawn. But when that friend died unexpectedly, the grass grew past the 10 inches allowed by the city, leading to $500 fines per day, for 57 days, totaling nearly $30,000.

"I’m trying not to think about it but I’ll be booted out of this house and I’ll have to find another place to live," Ficken said at a May press conference.

In May, Ficken, with the help of the non-profit Institute for Justice, sued the city of Dunedin. He claimed he wasn’t made aware of the fines until they were already out of control. As the story spread, the city became the target of angry calls, e-mails, and occasional violent threats.

Months later, the city filed two motions - one to dismiss the complaint against it, saying the $500 a day fine for repeat violations is "not excessive" as it's permitted under state law and that Ficken was notified of a hearing where "he could have contested the alleged violations, but did not."

The second motion is to strike portions of the complaint, saying it's "replete with irrelevant, redundant, immaterial, and prejudicial allegations" that cast the city "in a derogatory light" and portray "the city as a petty dictator."

"That's their own description of themselves," said Andrew Ward of the Institute for Justice, which is representing Ficken. "Our lawsuit has fairly and accurately characterized what the city is doing and if the city is looking bad, it's because of what the city of doing."

Ficken's attorneys say state law does not trump the Constitution and maintain that the daily fine is excessive when it adds up to $30,000.

"They're basically saying because they've done this before, they can do it again to Jim," Ward said. "What we'd like to see out of this case is a clear ruling that these sort of excessive fines are unconstitutional under the 8th Amendment."

City Manager Jennifer Bramley told FOX 13 the city's goal from the start was compliance. There were neighbor complaints and the city was obligated to address them. She said the lawsuit must be resolved or dismissed before the city can try to reach a settlement. For now, they're waiting on the courts.

As for what's next, this case heads to federal court. Ficken's attorneys will reply to the city's motion to see what the judge has to say. If the case makes it to trial, it wouldn't start until at least June of 2020.