Mar 12, 2024 - News

Miami commissioner could win legal fight over his house, expert says

A US Marshall walks away from the front door to Joe Carollo's residence in Coconut Grove after posting notices on Friday, Feb. 2, 2024. Carollo, a Miami commissioner, lost a civil trial accusing him of misusing his public office and was hit with a $63 million judgment.

A U.S. marshal walks away from the front door to Joe Carollo's home in Coconut Grove. Photo: Jose A. Iglesias/Miami Herald/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Miami Commissioner Joe Carollo is trying to save his home from a $63.5 million legal judgment — and the law might be on his side, according to a legal expert.

Why it matters: Carollo, who last June was found liable in a First Amendment lawsuit filed by two Little Havana business owners, is attempting to shield his home from seizure using Florida's homestead protections.

  • The longtime Miami politician, who has a history of scandal, is already forking over 25% of his wages to the business owners, their attorney tells Axios.
  • His Coconut Grove home is estimated to be worth over $3 million, according to Zillow.

How it works: The state constitution protects a homeowner from the forced sale of their residence, with exceptions for things like unpaid taxes, unpaid work or non-payment on a mortgage.

  • South Florida attorney David Levine, a property law expert not involved in the lawsuit, tells Axios that there's a "very good chance" Carollo will keep his home based on his narrow analysis of the case.
  • "I don't believe that there is much of any chance, from my reading of the case law, that his claim for homestead would be denied," Levine says. "I think this is a very strong protection in the state of Florida."

Attorneys for plaintiffs William Fuller and Martin Pinilla, who own Ball & Chain and other businesses on Calle Ocho, argue that Carollo abandoned his homestead when he moved out in 2016 to run for a commission seat in District 3.

  • Carollo, who had been renting in Brickell and Little Havana, moved back into his home last April during the trial, according to the attorneys.
  • They also argued that a city consultant tried to protect Carollo from liability by redrawing District 3 to include the Coconut Grove home, WLRN reports.

What they're saying: "While Carollo lacked any intention to make the Morris Lane property his permanent residence, he did hope to protect it from any final judgment that the court might enter in this case," attorneys for the plaintiffs wrote in a brief.

The other side: "A man's home is his castle and we are here to protect it because it is entitled to that protection," an attorney for Carollo, Mason Pertnoy, recently said in court, per WLRN.

Between the lines: Levine says Carollo demonstrated his intent to make the house his homestead by moving back in before a final judgment was entered.

  • "There is no procedural hurdle, it just has to be where you reside," he says. "They've got to prove that it's not."

Catch up quick: Fuller and Pinilla sued Carollo in 2018 for weaponizing city resources to harass their businesses after they supported his political rival.

  • They are legally allowed to go after Carollo's salary, bank accounts and property to collect their award, Nova Southeastern University law professor Michael Dale tells Axios.
  • But they have not been able to seize Carollo's bank accounts because none of them have any cash, the plaintiffs' attorney Jeff Gutchess tells Axios.
  • Carollo also has "some right" to his mother's property near Coral Way, Gutchess says. "We are trying to get information on the status of that, and we will try to execute on it when we can."

What's next: Carollo's home was supposed to be auctioned off by the U.S. Marshals Service on March 19, but the sale has been delayed as the courts consider his homestead claim, the Miami Herald reports.

  • A status conference is scheduled in April.
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