Friday, January 19, 2024

Judge orders former Escambia Commissioner Doug Underhill to pay $130,000 in legal fees. (Pensacola News Journal)

Another day, another phony Florida elected County official violating our Right to Know. When will they ever learn?  From Pensacola News Journal:

Judge orders former Escambia Commissioner Doug Underhill to pay $130,000 in legal fees

Jim Little
Pensacola News Journal

A federal judge ordered former Escambia County Commissioner Doug Underhill to pay the legal fees of Pensacola businessman David Bear in a lawsuit over Underhill's public records on his Facebook account.

U.S. District Court Judge Casey Rodgers issued an order Tuesday upholding a magistrate judge's recommendation that Underhill must pay $130,425 in legal fees to Bear.

Underhill was forced to hand over messages on his Facebook account from his time in office that the court ruled were public records. Underhill refused to comply with Bear's public records request fully and Bear took him and Escambia County to court.

Escambia County ultimately settled with Bear on the condition that the county not reimburse Underhill's legal fees.

Underhill attempted to argue before the court that the lawsuit was for an improper purpose to hurt him financially, and the settlement with the county was evidence of that.

Rodgers ruled the settlement that occurred after the lawsuit was filed had no bearing on Bear's reason for filing the lawsuit in the first place.

Underhill also asked to reopen the record of the case, arguing for additional discovery, and included text messages between Bear and Commissioner Robert Bender that he argued showed more evidence of an attempt to hurt him financially.

"Keep your focus on Pam (Childers)," Bear wrote on Aug. 19, 2021, to Bender. "I'll take down Doug."

In her opinion, Rodgers ruled that there was no merit to Underhill's argument and that the text message was not material to the lawsuit.

"This statement was made almost two years after this litigation was initiated and thus does not show that the records request or the suit was initiated for an improper purpose as opposed to a genuine request to obtain public records," Rodgers wrote.

Previously:Escambia Commissioner Doug Underhill loses last attempt to block release of public records

Rodgers noted Bear did not cause Underhill to fail to comply with the Florida Public Records law.

"The Magistrate Judge correctly determined that despite obvious personal animosity between the parties throughout this suit and before, the record shows no attempt by Bear to cause a violation of the Public Records Act," Rodgers wrote. "Instead, the record shows that the request was a genuine search for public records, and the suit was filed because Underhill refused to respond to the request for public records that were within his custody."

In perhaps a Pyrrhic victory for Underhill in the case, Rodgers ruled in March that Underhill did not violate Bear's First Amendment rights when he blocked Bear from his personal Facebook page.

"While some public records were identified on the Underhill page because of their content, that alone is an insufficient basis to find state action for purposes of the entire page," Rodgers wrote in March.

Rodgers ruled Tuesday that the case be closed with a finding in favor of Bear on the Public Records Act claims and an order that Underhill pay Bear's legal fees. The First Amendment claim was ruled in favor of Underhill and dismissed.

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