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Thursday, September 16, 2021

City of Ocala agrees to pay nearly $400,000 in settlement over public sleeping arrests

Ocala will pay nearly $400,000 in attorney’s fees and costs after a judge partially ruled against the city’s opposition to a $750,000 settlement over its public sleeping law.

Assistant City Attorney Patrick Gilligan provided an update on a lawsuit that successfully challenged the city’s open lodging ordinance under Section 42-10 of the Ocala City Code as unconstitutional.

During Tuesday’s Ocala City Council meeting, Gilligan presented an order from United States Middle District Court Judge James S. Moody awarding $372,150 in attorney’s fees and $19,979.58 in costs to the plaintiffs and their attorneys.

The case was filed on behalf of Patrick McArdle, Courtney Ramsey, and Anthony Cummings by the Southern Legal Counsel, the American Civil Liberties Union, and AP Law Group, an Ocala-based law firm.

In February, the court partially granted summary judgment on two of six counts. According to court records, the plaintiffs, who are entitled to attorney’s fees and costs pursuant to federal law, stated they had fees in excess of $1 million dollars and were only claiming $754,366.58 ($734,387 for attorney’s fees and $19,979.58 for costs).

The city opposed that motion and argued that the plaintiffs were entitled to fees in the range of $55,000 to $80,000, according to Gilligan.

Among multiple points of contention, the city attorney’s office challenged claims for nearly $200,000 in depositions alone. During Tuesday’s meeting, Gilligan alleged that plaintiffs’ attorneys took a variety of steps to increase their fees during depositions, citing at least one instance in which four attorneys and multiple paralegals were on hand.

Although council members and the mayor expressed disappointment in the decision to settle, Gilligan advised that an appeal could cost the city significantly more and wouldn’t be worth the “time or the effort.”

In total, the city of Ocala agrees to pay $392,129.58 in attorney’s fees and costs.

In his decision earlier this year, Judge Moody determined that arresting homeless individuals for sleeping outside was “cruel and unusual” punishment and violated both the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution. The court decided that since Ocala Police Department officers were not contacting local shelters to ensure availability prior to making arrests, they were unfairly punishing individuals based on their living status.