9101 SW 69th Court (J. Albert Diaz)
For any landlord, it’s arguably the worst-case scenario.
Authorities in 2008 discovered Zenaida Gomez’s tenant had set up a hydroponics farm in her Pinecrest house to grow large amounts of marijuana. The village seized the property and sought to claim it through forfeiture.
Three times Gomez offered to hand over the property to attorney Cynthia Everett, who was representing the affluent village, and three times Everett refused. In the end, those decisions cost Pinecrest $415,000, said Gomez’s attorney, Richard Diaz of Miami.
A dispute over the seizure of the property at 9101 SW 69th Court made its way to the Florida Supreme Court, and Gomez ended up winning her challenge to the forfeiture.
Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Beth Bloom in January ordered Pinecrest to pay $250,000 for the change in property value over four years and $165,000 in lost rental income. A hearing is set April 10 to determine Diaz’s fees.
Diaz said it was Everett’s inaction that cost Pinecrest’s taxpayers. He said offers made to the village through her would have basically turned over the property in 2008, but those offers were never relayed to the city manager, according to depositions.
Everett, then a private practitioner, “was billing by the hour. She was milking it,” Diaz said. “What drove this train is her greed for an hourly fee.”
Everett is now Fort Lauderdale’s city attorney with a salary of $193,000. She referred questions to Pinecrest spokeswoman Michelle Hammontree Garcia, who said she was unaware of the Gomez case.
Criminal defense attorney Frank Rubino, who has lived in Pinecrest for a decade, took an interest in the Gomez forfeiture case. He said two years ago he wrote Pinecrest Mayor Cindy Lerner, who invited him to meet with her as a concerned citizen on the subject.
“I told her this was a loser, and we were spending a ton of money,” Rubino said. “Ultimately, they made a horribly bad decision for which all the residents will have to pay. It’s going to be paid out of our tax money, isn’t it? Pinecrest isn’t going to hold a bake sale to pay for it, are they?”
County records show Gomez’s home was purchased in 2006 for $1.1 million and has an assessed value of $519,000. When Pinecrest seized Gomez’s home in 2008, she was underwater on its mortgage.
Diaz wrote Everett three times trying to resolve the matter after the house was seized in January 2008.
On Feb. 4, 2008, Diaz wrote a short note, saying the city could settle the case for $500.
When Everett refused, Diaz said Gomez offered to give Pinecrest the title to the property under the stipulation that the village assumed all financial liability. The village would eat any loss if the property was sold.
Later the same month, Diaz relayed to Everett a case he had in Opa-locka where the city dug in its heels on a forfeiture over $15,000 and eventually lost. Diaz referred in the letter to Everett “lashing out” at him when he asked for proof his client knew of the marijuana operation.
“Your attitude was that you do not care about losing this case,” Diaz wrote. “This is not what I perceive to be the proper attitude for ‘any’ attorney who represents ‘any’ city in ‘any’ litigation.”
Diaz again asked Everett what evidence she had that Gomez knew her tenant was using the residence for illegal activity, a predicate for forfeiture.
“But you have now drawn the battle lines and made it clear that you would rather fight this case,” Diaz wrote. “There is only one reason for this and that is that you intend to keep billing the village for your attorney’s fees.”
On March 7, Diaz wrote to Everett again, saying, “I can already see we are going to have a lot of problems in this case, unfortunately.”
Diaz, in the last letter, told Everett it appeared she mixed up the facts of the Gomez case with another. Diaz said his client wanted to rent the house again to help pay the mortgage.
Gomez has been able to delay a foreclosure action by Citibank N.A. after finding a potential buyer for the house. There has been no action in the foreclosure case since October.
After Pinecrest refused to settle, Gomez challenged the seizure all the way to the Florida Supreme Court. She argued her home should not have been seized because she didn’t know about her tenant’s marijuana operation.
The Florida Supreme Court ruled against her, but Pinecrest still had to get a forfeiture order to take the property.
In 2011, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Amy Steele Donner, who has since left the bench, granted summary judgment in Gomez’s favor, adopting a magistrate’s report. Everett delayed the summary judgment hearing twice but was denied a third delay by General Magistrate Elizabeth M. Schwabedissen.
She found Pinecrest had probable cause to seize the house but could not prove Gomez knew of the marijuana operation.
Rubino, who deals with forfeiture in some of his drug cases, said Everett should have realized she couldn’t win the forfeiture.
“Many people rent property, and you just assume the person renting it is doing the right thing. And you don’t have the right to inspect that property,” Rubino said. “The owner was willing to resolve the case to the benefit of Pinecrest, and they were too bullheaded and stupid to do it.”