Developer Bill Fuller wins appeals court ruling against his longtime foe, Miami commissioner Joe Carollo

Three-judge panel denied Carollo’s appeal for qualified immunity from being held personally liable

Little Havana developer Bill Fuller and Miami commissioner Joe Carollo
Little Havana developer Bill Fuller and Miami commissioner Joe Carollo

A federal appeals court handed developer Bill Fuller a key victory against his nemesis, Miami commissioner Joe Carollo, in a ruling that could affect how government officials crack down on the local real estate community.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Court of Appeals denied Carollo’s petition to overturn Miami Federal Judge Rodney Smith’s ruling from May of last year. Smith had concluded the city commissioner was not acting in his official capacity when he allegedly ordered code enforcement officers to go after properties Fuller and his business partner, Martin Pinilla, own in Little Havana.

In 2018, Fuller and Pinilla sued Carollo for allegedly violating their rights, seeking $10 million in damages. The complaint alleges that Carollo engaged in targeted harassment by staking out Fuller’s properties and affiliated businesses, as well as filing false complaints to code enforcement and city employees. Fuller and Pinilla allege Carollo was retaliating because Fuller supported the elected official’s opponent in the 2017 run-off election.

Carollo sought to have the lawsuit dismissed, based on his argument that he had qualified immunity because he was acting in his official capacity as a city commissioner.

In September, Judge Smith put the lawsuit on hold to allow Carollo time to sort out his appeal. But now the case will likely move forward unless Carollo seeks another appeal with the Florida Supreme Court.

“We will now set the case for trial and get our day in court,” Jeff Gutchess, an attorney for Fuller and Pinilla, told The Real Deal. “Carollo has been using this doctrine of qualified immunity to delay the case for three years. The appeals court saw through that very quickly.”

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In an emailed statement, Carollo’s lawyer Ben Kuehne said the city commissioner “remains confident that his actions have always been to further the best interests of the citizens of Miami.”

“He will continue to do the important work of representing the people for which he was elected,” Kuehne said. “He fully expects the court to declare that a businessman who refuses to follow the same rules applicable to every other business in the city of Miami is not permitted to demand special privileges.”

According to the complaint, Miami code enforcement officers targeted Ball & Chain, a bar and lounge owned by Mad Room Hospitality, a company headed by brothers Zack and Ben Bush and of which Fuller has an ownership stake. Fuller also owns the building that houses Ball & Chain. City employees also allegedly went after Union Beer Store, a craft beer bar located in a building Fuller and Pinilla own; and Sanguich de Miami, a sandwich spot that was previously in a refurbished shipping container on a vacant lot the partners own.

In a separate federal lawsuit last year, Mad Room sued the city of Miami for $27.9 million in damages for shutting down Ball & Chain and Taquerias el Mexicano, a Mexican restaurant the company owns and that had been in operation for 36 years until the city closed it down last year.

Gutchess said the outcome of the federal case against Carollo is of great importance to the local real estate development community.

“It really is a bad thing to have a city commissioner free to target real estate developers and thwart their business for years,” Gutchess said. “The fact that the federal court and appeals court are not allowing this to happen is significant for developers planning on building here.”