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Judge Orders Dennis McDonald and Attorney to Pay Palm Coast $15,900 Over Frivolous Suit

| February 3, 2015

Dennis McDonald, left, says he will appeal the judge's order. His attorney, Josh Knight, left Palm Coast on a personal health matter for six months, according to McDonald, though he is also the subject of a court-ordered injunction. (© FlaglerLive)

Dennis McDonald, left, says he will appeal the judge’s order. His attorney, Josh Knight, left Palm Coast on a personal health matter for six months, according to McDonald. (© FlaglerLive)

Flagler County Circuit Judge Michael Orfinger has ordered Dennis McDonald and his attorney, Joshua Knight, to pay Palm Coast $15,705 in attorneys’ fees and other costs the city incurred from a frivolous lawsuit McDonald filed against it in 2013.

The amount is just $2,000 short of the amount Palm Coast was seeking. McDonald and Knight by law must split the amount owed almost equally. Palm Coast filed its claim against both men last year when another judge ruled that McDonald’s lawsuit had no merit.

It’s not a punitive action, but it is designed to strongly discourage the reflexive filing of lawsuits. Florida law gives anyone, local governments included, the right to claim attorney’s fees and sanctions as a result of lawsuits making unsupported claims. But governments rarely exercise that right. Palm Coast did so against McDonald, a man it has long considered somewhere between a thorn in its side and an outright foe.

McDonald at one point in 2013 and 2014 would appear before the council bi-weekly to harangue it over one issue or another while making extensive demands for public records. To organize his attacks, he would connect dots, at times inaccurately, between city and county documents, hearsay and assumptions. The lawsuit he filed against the city, claiming that Palm Coast was about to level trees in and around Palm Harbor shopping center, was one such example. (The city did level some trees, notably a few stately laurel oaks, but neither to the extent that McDonald claimed nor in some of the places that he claimed, and he did not take into account the replanting that the city required.)

“There is a place for sincerity and honesty in government, and when you deal very loosely with the truth, there are consequences to be paid,” Palm Coast Mayor Jon Netts said this afternoon.

McDonald took a dimmer view of Orfinger’s order. “I will certainly appeal it. I’ll go to a citizens’ right group. I mean, come on, you can’t ask questions?” McDonald, who was not aware of the order until a reporter told him about it, asked. “This means that nobody can ask questions of the municipality. This is completely contrary to everything that our country avails us to.”

Netts rejected the notion that McDonald was merely asking questions, or that his rights to ask questions have been circumscribed. “There is a huge difference between asking a question and getting an answer, and continuing to make statements that are contrary to fact,” Netts said. “It’s not as though this was handled in the blind. When he first made his allegations we explained very clearly what we thought the defects in his argument were. The covenants and restrictions he was referring to had to do with different pieces of property. It was incorrect from the very beginning, and he knew it, or should have known it.”

But McDonald also deflected responsibility for the matter to Knight. “I don’t tell anybody how to do a suit, it’s Josh’s problem,” McDonald said. “You go to a lawyer because you’re not a lawyer and you hire a professional, and it’s Josh’s decision how things were done, not mine, so why would a court say I’m responsible for anything, or anybody who brings a suit.”

Knight currently has his own problems. He was arrested on a domestic battery charge on Jan. 12, hours after the hearing where Orfinger said he’d soon be ruling on how much Knight and McDonald would owe. According to McDonald, Knight has left town for a six-month treatment stint and is not handling cases, which may explain why McDonald was not aware of the judge’s order. Netts was.

The Flagler County Commission has been watching Palm Coast’s counter-claim very closely, as the county had a lawsuit against it also declared frivolous by an associate of McDonald’s—Dan Bozza, who also used Knight as his attorney. Both Bozza and McDonalds are members of the Ronald Reagan Republican Assemblies, the extremist Republican group that posits an adversarial stance toward local governments as a strategy.

The decision signals to local anti-government activists that governments will not leave certain attacks unanswered.

Bozza created a group called the “Palm Coast Watchdogs” last year. The group’s explicit purpose, Bozza said in an interview at the time, was to file lawsuits against local governments. The lawsuit filed against the county claimed that County Commissioner Barbara Revels acted inappropriately when she voted to approve the purchase of the old Memorial hospital building in Bunnell so the county could convert it into a sheriff’s operations center. Judge Dennis Craig Threw out the lawsuit—not because it was without merit, but because its claims were in the wrong jurisdiction. Craig followed County Attorney Al Hadeed’s reasoning and said the claims were more properly filed with the Florida Ethics Commission.

In fact, another member of the Reagan group had filed just such a claim with the ethics commission, which eventually found the claim to have merit (and added one of its own), and slapped a $2,500 fine on Revels. Still, Hadeed filed an action similar to Palm Coast’s to recover fees and costs from Bozza’s “Watchdogs” lawsuit—and send the same message that Palm Coast sent: that local governments will not easily tolerate the knee-jerk filing of suits whose motives are primarily political and rarely substantial.

Craig last summer ruled that Palm Coast was entitled to fees from McDonald and Knight. But the question was: how much was the city entitled to. In October, Palm Coast attorneys William Reischmann and Debra Babb-Nutcher—who practice with Brown, Garganese, Weiss and D’Argesta in Orlando—filed an affidavit outlining the billable hours for which they were seeking to be paid.

“Our firm has spent 120.2 hours through the date of this affidavit defending the city of Palm Coast, Florida, in this manner,” Babb-Nutcher wrote. “The number of hours is reasonable considering the numerous factual allegations raised that require investigation and the novel legal claims raised that required legal research and analysis.”

The billable hours reflect the usual items lawyers bill for: emails, phone calls, research, reviewing documents. The hours add up fast: 15.9 hours for Reischmann, 97.7 for Babb-Nutcher, and 3.2 hours for Catherine Reischmann, each of whom commands a $150-an-hour fee, and 3.4 hours for a paralegal at $75-per hour, plus some fees for online computer research, photocopies and postage.

Orfinger found that “certain of the hours to be taxed against [Knight and McDonald] are not reasonable.” In item, for example, the lawyers billed 10 minutes to review a judge’s “hearing date availability” for an upcoming motion, and the next day billed another 10 minutes to review the scheduling with a judicial assistant, items billed at the regular lawyer’s fee of $150 an hour when, Orfinger ruled, the work was “clerical in nature and thus not reasonable.” A total of 1.6 such hours were billed.

Orfinger also threw out 9.5 hours billed as lawyers decided whether to get Judge Craig removed from their case, after Craig had humiliated the city in a red-light camera proceeding (he was successfully disputing a ticket he got) and charged the city with bad faith. The frequently thin-skinned city administration recoiled but eventually dropped the move to remove Craig from the case: he was reassigned to Volusia in January anyway. Orfinger found it “inappropriate” to bill for those hours.

The judge also threw out 2.7 hours the attorneys had billed to analyze or discuss a public record request. That was notable because it cautions local governments against being cavalier when billing the public over public record requests–bills that can sometimes be used as intimidation–and signals that Orfinger, who was just seated as a circuit judge, does not allow for much leeway on the public record law.

In the end, the judge ruled that McDonald would have to pay $8,013.66 and Knight, $7,852. The sum is not much of a burden for McDonald, who, when he last ran for the Flagler County Commission last summer, listed his net worth at just over $1 million, while his wife Janet McDonald, now a school board member, listed her net worth at $3 million.

Final Judgment Against Dennis McDonald and Josh Knight (2015)

17 Responses for “Judge Orders Dennis McDonald and Attorney to Pay Palm Coast $15,900 Over Frivolous Suit”

  1. Sherry Epley says:

    LOL! I love it! Dennis McDonald is nothing but a big joke!

  2. tulip says:

    Good for the judge! McDonald deserves to have to pay back the money, and any lawyer that takes on a frivolous lawsuit deserves to have to pay also. Maybe this will put an end to all the complaining McDonald did and still does.

  3. orphan says:

    Good for the judge!

    You people that voted for ANY of the candidates without knowing what they stood for got just what you deserve.

    Let’s let the rabble-rousers pay their due, and I wish the costs were much more against Mr. RABBLE-ROUSER himself.

    It’s one thing to latch onto a project that is actually important to the community or world, but to simply ignore the laws and rules that govern us is just so ‘in your face’.

    These people knew what they were doing. To blatantly try to run over and conquer this community with BS is such a sad comment. I have never seen anything positive from the words of either of the McDonalds written either on this site or in the Daytona News Journal.

    The way that I see what has happened recently is this:
    Palm Coast won.
    Flagler County won.
    One of the McDonald’s won.
    Palm Coast and Flagler County lost because one of the McDonalds won.


    We really have way too many people in our country that think that the best way to RUN our country is to run ‘DOWN’ our country.

  4. Robert Lewis says:

    Blame the attorney. That is the response.
    If anything, Mr. Knight should seek damages caused to his personal and professional life at the hands of Dennis The Mennace McDonald.

  5. Michael says:

    This person is running for elected office, this just shows you the type of integrity he has, none. People like this are attention whores, people do you really want someone who wastes time and money in a public office.

  6. Brad says:

    Now the County Commission should do the same. Dennis and that group are just vile, and have done nothing to do anything positive for this area. They simply want control for pure selfish reasons.. It’s the lawyer’s fault? Seriously?

  7. Will V. says:

    I believe that Dennis also had a lot to do with Ms. Weeks demise.

  8. My O My says:

    Mrs. Weeks seemed to march to the beat of her own drum. She was a leader, not a follower. She didn’t like what was going on, made it known, and apparently had enough to make the decision to move on. This all comes across that the citizens who disagree must keep their thoughts, opinions and what ever they find to them selves, or else. When there are elected officials as Barbara Revels, and James Manfre being fined by state agencies there is obviously valid issues being raised and reasons why people like Dennis Mc Donald are speaking out. People are tired of this type of leadership. When a City Hall is constructed against the vote of the people, and millions of dollars are spent on property that isn’t owned by the city as was done on Bulldog Drive I am convinced there are some leaders in this county who are out of control.

    • OMG says:

      Actually the TEA Party respected Mrs. Weeks. She stood for ALL the residents even against the wishes of her own party.

      I understand that is why she resigned, she got tired of constant fighting and trying to abuse the electoral process…

  9. Ralph Belcher says:

    Couldn’t happen to a better fellow.

    I could see right through him. My Lady and I used to watch the Palm Coast City Council Meetings on television to watch him lumber up to the podium to pontificate and virtually threaten our elected officials time and time again. We’d roll our eyes and have a cheap laugh from it all.

    He doesn’t represent us, and remember, he’s really only one voice. Leave the bullying at home Mr. McDonald. We can see right through you and your operatives, and we’re not buying it for a taxpayer’s dollar. Just one bloke’s two cents.

  10. Donna Heiss says:

    You’re attorney left Palm Coast for 6 months for health reasons? Misleading the public once again I see Mr. McDonald. Public record says different.

  11. confidential says:

    The Flagler County Court Judges all side with the local government whether right or wrong. I saw that with SOE Weeks and Judge Moore Sten. Now judge Orfinger sides with the city against the only person that had the guts to tell the truth and take a stand for the preservation of our tree canopy versus and incoming big box type cattle hurdling mall. This judge punish the citizens that take a stand totally oblivious of the fact that what they fought against has been actually uprooted, our very tree canopy! Their lawsuit was not frivolous!
    Correct O My!!
    All the commentators above you, don’t know Jack of what they are talking about! Juts preparing the turf to run for local post some of them by sugar coating the ones to support them in current seats.

  12. Here-e says:

    Why would a judge impose a sanction on an indicidual who was not a petitioner? Wash those kool aid glasses before everyone gets sick. This needs to be appealed and how I see it the expenses for the paralegal and city attorney have already been paid…by the tax payer. This must be another way of trying to silence the people from exposing corruption.

    • YankeeExPat says:

      Well , Here-e says;
      “This must be another way of trying to silence the people from exposing corruption.”

      The Sherriff might start running the rabble rousers out on a rail like the old days.
      When I think of Palm Coast that old county tune “Harper Valley PTA” by Jeannie C. Riley comes to mind.

      Palm Coast Half Red-Neck/ Half Overbearing Yankee……All Podunk

  13. Disgusted says:

    Good for the judge. McDonald, Richter, Shaeffer, Shrivell and the rest of the RRR extremists will continue in their efforts to derail our local government at every turn. They have no interest in making things better, they thrive in dissent.

  14. confidential says:

    25 years ago we bought into a Palm Coast surrounded by tree canopies and when one brave resident takes a stand for us all to preserve it, we should give him total support other than calling him “a real joke” .
    Mr. McDonald is right, look what the city did with the canopy and our place of gathering for over 25 years in what used to be our beloved Palm Coast Sheraton aka Palm Coast Resort and Marina! We were sold into that package as our amenities by ITT. Our gorgeous tree canopy by the intracoastal, our event gathering covered deck on the water, the pool we could frequent with friends sipping our tropical drinks and delicious “tapas” in the friendly bar. All done away with green colors by the city to benefit Centex….
    The brave fight put up by Mr. McDonald we should all support not undermine! I have faith that in his appeal he will succeed for us all even when will cost us to pay the lawyers fighting against ourselves… The only real joke here are the city elected and administrators that have the nerve wasting tax payers paying the city legal team twice…their regular fees and whatever they please to overcharge!

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