Lawyers seek to kill local licenses

If the attorneys win, cities and counties could have to refund millions in fees collected in the past.

By JANET ZINK, Times Staff Writer
Published September 13, 2007

TAMPA - How many lawyers does it take to change a licensing law?

About 50,000.

That's how many Florida attorneys are included in a class-action suit filed against about 200 Florida cities and 35 counties, including Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater, and Hillsborough and Pasco counties.

If the lawyers win, local governments could have to refund millions of dollars of licensing fees to them.

And Tampa has been ordered to represent all the municipal and county defendants, according to a Hillsborough Circuit Court ruling. The city appealed that decision last month and lost.

The lawsuit, filed in 2003 by two Tampa attorneys, claims the rules that require lawyers to pay a local fee for an occupational license in order to be able to practice law violates the state Constitution.

The lawsuit argues that only the Florida Supreme Court decides who can and cannot practice law, not city and county governments.

The attorneys who filed the complaint say they want the ordinances changed, and want to be reimbursed for fees paid for the four years prior to the lawsuit's filing.

Attorneys in Tampa pay a $289 occupational license tax each year - one of the highest in the state. If the city loses the case, it will have to pay back about $3-million to Tampa lawyers.

St. Petersburg collects about $47,000 annually with a $65 fee for each attorney plus a $12 fee for each of their office workers.

Clearwater, generates about $44,000 per year with a $121 annual fee.

Hillsborough County, where attorneys pay $30 for a license and $10 to the law library, brings in $132,500 per year.

Michael C. Addison, one of the lawyers who initiated the lawsuit, said the case is not about money.

"This action was filed in order to preserve and protect the ability of the Florida Supreme Court to regulate the practice of law," he said.

Addison said that if he gets any money back, he'll donate it to the Hillsborough County Bar Foundation.

The other Tampa lawyer who originated the suit was Richard T. Petitt.

In 2006 the Hillsborough Circuit Court named Tampa's chief assistant city attorney Jerry Gewirtz, as the defender against the claim.

The 2nd District Court of Appeal upheld the ruling, even though the city argued that "it lacked the ability to adequately protect" all the defendants.

"It would certainly be more manageable to me to just represent the city of Tampa as opposed to having 235 clients," Gewirtz said in an interview. "We're not dealing with one ordinance. We're dealing with hundreds of different ordinances."

The city asked for a rehearing and expects a ruling by the end of the year. If it's unfavorable, City Attorney David Smith said he may ask the Florida Supreme Court to review the matter.

Whatever happens, Smith said, the case is likely to be appealed to the highest court.

A similar case in Atlanta was decided by the Georgia Supreme Court in 2006 in favor of the attorneys, requiring Atlanta to pay back $18-million in fees. The Atlanta city attorney has asked lawyers to waive the refunds.

The Tampa City Council voted to change its occupational license rules in 2006 to eliminate the threat of jail time or a denial of the right to do business as punishment for not paying the fee.

But Smith said the change had nothing to do with the lawsuit.

"We wanted to make it clear that we do not seek criminal penalties. We never have, never intended to and now do not have that option," he said.

Smith sent a letter to city and county attorneys last month asking them to help fight the lawsuit.

"Those who do not choose to have their own counsel have drafted the city of Tampa to defend them," he said.

Paul Hull, assistant city attorney in Clearwater, said his city hasn't decided yet what to do.

But Hillsborough County attorney Renee Lee said her office would "put some manpower on it."

And Mark Winn, chief assistant city attorney in St. Petersburg, said his office plans to defend the city's ordinance.

"We have great confidence in the Tampa City Attorney's office," Winn said. "But it's our job to protect St. Pete."

Janet Zink can be reached at jzink@sptimes.com or 813 226-3401.

Fast facts

Supersize lawsuit

About 50,000 Florida attorneys are included in a class-action suit alleging that some city and county occupational license tax rules violate the Florida Constitution. The complaint asks that the rules be changed and that attorneys be reimbursed for some of the fees they've paid. The following bay area cities and counties are named as defendants in the case:

- Hillsborough County

- Pasco County

- Belleair Beach

- Belleair

- Belleair Bluffs

- Clearwater

- Dade City

- Gulfport

- Indian Rocks Beach

- Kenneth City

- Largo

- Madeira Beach

- New Port Richey

- Oldsmar

- Plant City

- Port Richey

- Redington Beach

- Safety Harbor

- San Antonio

- St. Pete Beach

- St. Petersburg

- Tarpon Springs

- Treasure Island