Hollywood Park Apartments West, LLC v. City of Hollywood, Florida—(J. Warner; 4DCA; 1/11/23). This is a petition for a writ of prohibition challenging a trial judge’s denial of a motion to disqualify the judge. This was a water-billing dispute between the city and an apartment complex after a defective water meter caused underbilling and the city added to future water bills to make up for the prior underbilling. A predecessor judge ruled in the city’s favor that doing this was fine, but no final judgment was entered, and the apartment didn’t pay the “make up” portion of the bills. The city decided to shut off the apartment’s water due to disputed amounts even though current bills were paid and only the back pay was at issue. A different judge was appointed to the case for some reason, and the judge held a status hearing though no motions were pending. She indicated that she intended to appoint a receiver, because she believed the apartments had been collecting rents that included amounts for water but failed to pay City for the water. The judge also commented to Apartments’ attorney that, “I’m not going to get into this now, but you may want to talk to your clients about…this, whether eventually--I don’t know much more about the case than—than…what you told me--whether the Court needs to refer this case to the state attorney’s office for review.” The judge made two more threats to refer the apartment complex to the State’s Attorney for investigation. After the hearing, the apartment complex moved to disqualify the judge, arguing that the comments created a reasonable fear that the judge was biased or prejudiced and had prejudged the issues so as to create a reasonable fear that a fair trial could not be had. The judge denied the motion. The DCA held that the trial judge’s comments, at a hearing at which no rulings were to be made, included threats of criminal prosecution and a unilateral determination that a receiver should be appointed. These comments gave rise to a well-founded fear of bias. The trial judge’s consideration of the receiver amounted to a determination on an issue not before the court. Most significantly, however, the trial judge threatened the party with criminal investigation several times. That alone would cause a party to fear that the trial judge was biased against it, and the party could not receive a fair trial. The petition was granted.
Terry P. Roberts
Director of Appellate Practice Fischer Redavid PLLC