Joe Carollo found liable: ordered to pay $63 million in federal 'harassment' case
Updated at 2:40 p.m.
Miami Commissioner Joe Carollo has been found liable for violating the First Amendment rights of Little Havana business owners William Fuller and Martin Pinilla.
A Broward jury on Thursday reached a verdict in favor of the plaintiffs in a federal civil rights case against the commissioner, and found that he must pay $63.5 million to both plaintiffs in compensatory and punitive damages. The jury deliberated for a little more than four hours between Wednesday afternoon and Thursday morning.
As the verdict was read out, Fuller could be seen openly crying in the audience, while his family and friends comforted him. Carollo, meanwhile, remained stoic.
"It feels like a weight's been lifted off our backs," Fuller told WLRN. "He's terrorized us, our families, our employees, our tenants... for five years."
Both plaintiffs and their attorneys noted the "national significance" they feel the decision represents for residents attempting to protect themselves from retaliation from elected officials.
"Our faith in God in the United States has delivered us a historic decision from the jury which has defended the freedom of speech, which is sacred and has delivered a very specific message to all the politicians that they can't abuse their power," said Martin Pinilla, Fuller's business partner and co-plaintiff in the case.
The verdict comes after a trial that spanned two months. Plaintiffs argued that Carollo used the offices of city government to harass their businesses and properties because they supported his political opponent, Alfonso Leon, in a 2017 election for city commissioner, violating their constitutional rights.
During the trial, plaintiffs laid out for jurors how several of their properties in Little Havana, particularly the Ball & Chain bar and Taquerias EL Mexicano on Calle Ocho, were repeatedly inspected for code violations and visited by Miami police officers after Carollo took office. Carollo himself was captured on video visiting the outside of the properties, arguing with employees and valet workers about alleged issues with their operations.
Carollo and his attorneys left the courthouse as soon as the verdict was delivered, and did not immediately speak to reporters.
Later, attorneys Mason Pertnoy and Benedict Kuehne reached out to WLRN via email with a written statement in response to the verdict:
"Commissioner Carollo and his legal team thank the jury for their service. We are disappointed with the result. Commissioner Carollo will seek to exercise all legal rights available to him including appellate review," they wrote.
"Unlike the Plaintiffs who seem to have now resorted to disparaging comments about the Commissioner and City of Miami Employees, the Commissioner will continue to serve all citizens of District 3 and the City of Miami fairly and equally in protecting health, safety, and quality of life."
Carollo's attorneys would not comment on the question of who will foot the bill for the damages and attorneys fees, a point that looms over the verdict.
Because the commissioner was sued in his personal capacity for actions allegedly done outside the scope of his duties as an elected official, the burden of payment is expected to fall on him, and not on city of Miami taxpayers.
However, the city has already paid at least $2 million for Carollo's legal representation in the years leading up to jury trial, despite the case being filed against him personally and not as a commissioner.
"The City thanks the jury for their service during this lengthy trial. Although the City is disappointed with the verdict and certain issues that occurred during the trial, the City anticipates that Commissioner Carollo will be exercising (and should exercise) full appellate rights, as provided for and protected under the American judicial system," Miami City Attorney Victoria Méndez wrote in an email to WLRN. She did not respond to questions about whether city taxpayers would have to pay damages to the plaintiffs.
More legal battles remain for Carollo and the city.
A separate federal lawsuit filed by the owners of Ball & Chain seek to hold the city separately liable for the financial damages to their businesses. A trial date has not been scheduled in the case.