On May 22, 2014, the Supreme Court of Florida reversed the Fifth District Court of Appeals in the case of South Florida Water Management District v. RLI Live Oak, LLC, No. SC 12-2336 (Fla. May 22, 2014), an appeal brought by the water management district over the applicable burden of proof when imposing civil penalties. The Florida Supreme Court held that, when “the Legislature statutorily authorizes a state governmental agency to recover a ‘civil penalty’ in a ‘court of competent jurisdiction’ but does not specify the agency’s burden of proof, the agency is not required under Osborne [Department of Banking & Finance v. Osborne Stern & Co, 670 So. 2d 932 (Fla. 1996)] to prove the alleged violation by clear and convincing evidence, but rather by a preponderance of the evidence.”
In its opinion, the Florida Supreme Court reasoned that the lower appellate court had “overextended” Osborne in the lower court’s application of the higher burden of proof to this civil enforcement proceeding. Agreeing with the South Florida Water Management District, the Court refused to apply the clear and convincing standard applicable to “administrative fines” in Osborne to an award of civil penalties in a civil enforcement cases, absent specific legislative authorization.
This case originally arose over a dispute between the Water Management District and the land developer, RLI Live Oak, LLC (RLI), over the unauthorized dredging and filling of wetlands on property owned by RLI in Osceola County. The circuit court ruled against RLI on all counts and awarded the Water Management District $81,900 in civil penalties. The appellate court reversed upon finding that the Water Management District had failed to satisfy the required burden of proof for such an award, relying upon Osborne. The case was certified to the Florida Supreme Court as presenting an issue of great public importance, as requested by the Water Management District. The Florida Attorney General and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection filed amicus briefs in support of the Water Management District.