FORT LAUDERDALE, FL — An attorney for a Florida barber who attempted to reopen his Lion Style Barbershop & Salon during the coronavirus shutdown and was slapped with two fines, filed a class action lawsuit late Friday against Gov. Ron DeSantis and local officials seeking unspecified damages on behalf of all Florida businesses that lost money during the pandemic by virtue of being deemed nonessential.
"To the extent that the government made choices as to the businesses that they closed down, it was not necessarily, it seems, done with the intent entirely of the public safety," Florida attorney Jacob Weil of the Weil Law Group told Patch in an exclusive interview Friday. "It was done with the intent of making the public feel safe, which are very different things."
The 30-page lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida seeks "full and/or just compensation" on behalf of Daniel Liriano and other affected businesses. In addition to DeSantis, the suit names Broward County Chief Executive Bertha W. Henry and Miramar Mayor Wayne M. Messam as defendants.
The document claims Florida businesses collectively lost more than $100 billion during the shutdown.
"Restaurants if they have to open with 25 or 50 percent of capacity, cannot make an amount of money that would allow them to pay their fixed expenses, which means that no reasonable person would continue to operate a business if they know that they are going to have to operate at a loss," Weil asserted.
Liriano's shop reopened on May 18 after losing nearly two months of business to the coronavirus shutdown in Florida. The barber told Patch a number of his fellow small business owners would likely have to close their doors permanently.
The 45-year-old Liriano made headlines earlier this month when he briefly disobeyed an emergency order restricting nonessential businesses like his. He was forced to shut down by Miramar city officials who slapped him with two fines and threatened his professional license as well as the licenses of five other barbers who work with him.
The case got the attention of DeSantis, who appeared sympathetic at a news conference.
"I really believe that if somebody is able to conduct their business in a way that is low risk, government shouldn't be restricting them," the governor said at the time.
Weil told Patch he plans to seek out other Florida business owners who have been damaged by the shutdown and ask the court to put in place safeguards to prevent future shutdowns without some sort of mechanism that allows businesses to seek compensation.
"What we saw was effectively executives at every level of state government make decisions that affected the businesses owners in their community," Weil said. "If it can happen under coronavirus, it can happen 10 years from now."
The basis for the suit involves the legal principle of eminent domain, which provides for property owners to be compensated when the government takes their property, in this case even businesses that rent their premises.
"This predominantly affected small- and medium-sized businesses, not those large businesses who frankly could have afforded to take protective measures but for the most part have failed to," the attorney said. "If you go to a big box store and you look around, you’ll see people packed in."
The case may take years to be decided and ultimately come before the Florida Supreme Court or the even the U.S. Supreme Court. Similar, but different suits have been filed in Illinois, California and Pennsylvania in recent days, according to Weil.
Unlike the other suits, Weil's suit draws parallels to Florida citrus growers who have been compensated in the past when their trees have been taken by agricultural authorities to prevent the spread of tree diseases.
"What the court found in those cases, when it comes to infection you could take the infected property and that wouldn’t be considered a taking," he explained. "But all of the non-infected property that you are taking collaterally, simply to try to quell the spread of disease, which is a benefit to the public at large — not any individual business owner, or any individual private person who owned those trees — was a taking."
In Liriano's case, there were no signs of the new coronavirus at his shop along busy State Road 7 not far from Miami.
Unlike recent protests where demonstrators challenged the continued lockdown by ignoring social distancing rules and refusing to wear masks, Liriano said he spent between $2,000 and $3,000 on fresh paint, masks, gloves and hiring a cleaning company to sanitize his shop.
Liriano wears gloves and a face shield to cut hair like the ones health care workers have been using to collect coronavirus samples. So do the five other barbers who work with him.
"The government does not have to actually use the property for any purpose to take the property," Weil insisted. "They just have to make it so you cannot use the property for some public benefit. They are using it for a purpose, and that is to further their public health initiative."
He responded to criticism from Patch readers who argued that businesses should not be compensated if they receive federal stimulus money or government loans during the health crisis. One reader even compared the health crisis to the Vietnam War, in which Americans were drafted to fight — a comparison Weil said was off the mark though he countered soldiers were paid by the government and their families compensated if they were killed.
"A $1,200 stimulus check does not compensate for the losses suffered by Mr. Liriano and the numerous other businesses owners that are represented by him," Weil added, noting Liriano did not receive a stimulus check.
"Neither are loans and grants an effective means of providing potential compensation," he said. "These are government programs that again are done for a general public economic benefit. That is we don’t want the economy as a whole to collapse, hopefully."