Dunedin Homeowner Wins Round One in Tall Grass Lawsuit

J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · April 23, 2020

Dunedin, Fla. — Yesterday, Jim Ficken— a Dunedin, Fl. homeowner facing $30,000 in fines and even foreclosure for letting his grass get too long—won round one in court. A judge in the Middle District of Florida denied the city’s motion to dismiss Jim’s lawsuit. Now the lawsuit, which argues the city’s imposition of $500 daily fines for trivial home maintenance issues violates the Excessive Fines clauses of the U.S. and Florida Constitutions, will proceed to final judgment.

“Nobody should incur tens of thousands of dollars in fines and risk losing their property because their grass grew too long,” IJ Attorney Ari Bargil said. “The constitution expressly protects against fines that are excessive—and excessive is precisely what these penalties are. No one should have to pay $30,000 for tall grass. Yesterday’s decision takes us one step closer to vindicating Jim’s constitutional rights in court.”

The challenge stems from a two-month period in the summer of 2018, during which Jim Ficken was in South Carolina tending to his late mother’s estate. While Jim was out of town, the man he had hired to tend to his lawn passed away unexpectedly and the grass was left to grow unabated. Jim eventually cut the grass himself after he returned home, but by then it was already too late. Dunedin had been fining Jim $500 per day for months, starting when he was out of the state.

“Dunedin made regular visits to Jim’s property to check for noncompliance, but never once tried to tell Jim that he was under investigation or that he was racking up violations,” IJ Attorney Andrew Ward said. “But the government is supposed to provide reasonable notice. The city’s treatment of Jim violated his right to due process, and we look forward to showing just that in court.”

All told, Dunedin told Jim he owed the city $30,000 in fines. But $30,000 is a significant amount of money for Jim, and because he did not pay it, the city voted to foreclose on his home.

“When I found out how much Dunedin said I owed in fines, I was stunned,” said Jim. “They never even told me that I was going to be fined until I already owed them almost $30,000. I’m willing to pay a fine for violating the ordinance, but the punishment should fit the offense.”

The case is part of a broader effort by the Institute for Justice to put a stop to out-of-control municipal fines.