Tag Archives: Riviera Beach

Is it a House or a Vessel? Floating Homes and the Landmark Supreme Court Ruling that Expanded Their Rights

Riviera Beach Marina; Riviera Beach, Florida

Of the hundreds of homes lining the waterfront in Riviera Beach, Florida, Fane Lozman’s was a bit…unique. A 60-by-12-foot plywood structure plopped atop empty bilge space that kept it afloat, the floating home contained no engine, no rudder, no bow, and no sails; unlike neighboring houseboats, it had no means of self-propulsion, and could only travel when towed. Land based utilities, in the form of an extension cord and garden hose, provided the home with its energy and running water, and sewer lines connected it to the septic system of its dock.

Fane Lozman’s floating home

That isn’t to say that Lozman’s home lacked for charm; French doors on three of its sides opened up to views of the Atlantic, and its water system, if a bit crude, allowed for a full-use bathroom and kitchen. A sitting room, private bedroom, and closet space rounded out the first floor, and a stairway led to a quaint second story office space.

In the latest of a string of legal disputes concerning the peculiar floating home, owner Fane Lozman is suing the city of Riviera Beach for $365,000 in restitution for seizing and destroying the structure, as a result of two court rulings that were later overturned by the United States Supreme Court.

The story begins in 2006, when the city of Riviera Beach made public their plans to seize 2,200 homes via eminent domain, along with the public marina, to sell to a private developer. Lozman was among the many Riviera Beach residents who rallied against the governmental seizure, which was ultimately prevented from happening.

Early rendering of the Riviera Beach Marina redevelopment

In what can perhaps best be described as an act of petty retaliation for his outspoken opposition to their development aspirations a few years earlier, the city made several unsuccessful attempts to evict Lozman from the marina. In 2009, with the help of a federal admiralty lawsuit alleging that Lozman’s home was in violation of federal maritime law, Riviera Beach was finally able to seize Lozman’s home.

In district court, the city argued that Lozman’s home was in fact a vessel, since it was capable of transportation on water, and Lozman should therefore have been paying dockage fees for the three years that it had been moored in the city’s marina. The court ruled in the city’s favor, on the basis that the structure’s capacity for transportation qualified it as a vessel, rather than a home. Since vessels fall under what is known as admiral jurisdiction, placing them in the legal domain of federal maritime authorities, Lozman’s home was found to be in violation of admiral law since it had avoided federal inspection, dockage fees, and other regulations to which all waterborne ships are subject. As a result, a lien was placed on the home, and Lozman was evicted.

Lozman’s home, shortly after it was seized

Lozman filed an appeal in the Court of Appeals shortly thereafter, asserting that his floating home was in fact a home, and not a ship, and therefore subject to the same regulations and protections as ordinary, land-based homes. The Court of Appeals confirmed and upheld the district court’s ruling, however, echoing the lower court’s contention that the home’s capacity for transportation on water effectively classified it as a vessel.

The Court of Appeals decision was based on a passage from the United States Code of Law, which defined a ‘vessel’ as any watercraft “used, or capable of being used, as a means of transportation on water.” First established in 1873, and re-codified in the Rules of Construction Act of 1947, this definition has remained virtually unchanged in the nearly 150 years since its inception, and has served as the deciding factor in a number of similar cases.

Deemed a vessel, and not a home, the structure fell under the jurisdiction of federal maritime law, rather than state-tenant law, with which Lozman had been complying.

As punishment for failure to pay three years’ worth of dockage fees and for violating maritime law, Lozman’s structure was ordered sold at auction, whereupon the city of Riviera Beach purchased it and had it promptly destroyed.

Lozman was incensed, understandably, by the ruling; his home was incapable of self-propulsion, and could only be used as a means of transportation when towed by another vessel. Other than being towed by another boat to the Riviera Beach marina three years prior, the home had never been moved, and it had been used explicitly for residential purposes ever since. Anyone with two eyes and a shred of sense could see, he insisted, that it was a home, seldom used for transportation. How could a vague and antiquated legal definition – the primary function of which was to ensure that commercial and other vessels operated safely and responsibly – overlook the obvious fact that this floating home was just that – a home – and not a ship?

Ignoring the fact that it was too late to salvage his home, Lozman decided to take the fight to the Supreme Court. In the outside chance that his case would be picked up, he reasoned, a victory would at the very least afford him financial restitution – and a sense of justice – for the destruction of his house.

Against all odds, Lozman’s case was selected for review by the Supreme Court, and against even greater odds, the rulings from both previous proceedings were overturned. In January of 2013 – four years after Lozman’s floating home was seized from him, and three years after it was destroyed – the United States Supreme Court determined in a 7-2 majority ruling that a waterborne structure’s capacity for transportation is not sufficient to qualify it as a vessel.

Of the 9 U.S. Supreme Court Justices, only Justice Kennedy and Justice Sotomayor voted to uphold the previous rulings

In explaining their decision, the Justices asserted that the definition of “transportation” – the conveyance of people or things from one place to another – must be applied in a practical, rather than literal, way. In other words, floating homes capable of being towed across water, presumably transporting household items along with them and nothing more, are not necessarily ‘vessels’ for transport, and should not be classified as such.

Accordingly, the ruling established an important legal precedent concerning homes and other structures that float on water, whereby federal maritime law cannot be applied in disputes involving structures whose functions and legal designations are ambiguous; instead, these structures must instead be governed by state law.

The decision marks a significant victory for the owners of the estimated 10,000 floating homes throughout the country. Federal maritime law tends to be inflexible and unfriendly to the interests of owners, relying on an outmoded legal definition that ignores the ways in which the disputed structures are actually used. Under admiralty jurisdiction, floating homes are often mischaracterized as vessels, making them liable for dockage fees, U.S. Coast Guard inspections, and a number of other undue restrictions.

Under the jurisdiction of state law, however, floating homes are much more likely to be recognized as residences, and afforded the same rights and protections – homestead exemptions, for example – of land-based homes.

This ruling was reached in 2013. Why are we talking about it now?

Well, four years after the Supreme Court overturned the rulings that saw his home seized, auctioned off, and demolished, Lozman has yet to receive a penny of reimbursement. He has already returned to court – the same district and appeals courts whose rulings were later reversed by the Supreme Court – in order to fight for restitution. Again, both courts have ruled against him.

Lozman asserts that the city of Riviera Beach owes him $165,000 for the destruction – later deemed unwarranted by the Supreme Court – of his floating home. He is also demanding compensation for his legal fees, to the tune of $200,000. “When the Supreme Court says something,” he contends, “it’s not for the lower courts to blow off their mandate.”

In a new floating home, Lozman and his dachshund continue to live in Riviera Beach

While the initial Supreme Court ruling sets an important precedent for future disputes involving waterborne structures such as Lozman’s, it does not carry with it an explicit mandate requiring the city of Riviera Beach to retroactively make good, so to speak, on their seizure and destruction of Lozman’s home. Neither the district nor the appeals courts have found the city responsible for compensating Lozman. The city’s main defense is that they had been acting in accordance with the law at the time; the Supreme Court decision, they maintain, has no bearing on actions that preceded it, only on those that follow after.

As improbable as it was that Lozman’s first case would be selected for review by the U.S. Supreme Court, it’s even more unlikely that his new filings will reach the Court. While Lozman may be a hero to the thousands of floating homeowners across the nation, whose rights were protected and expanded by the precedent established by his case, it’s unlikely that Lozman himself will be able to cash in. He may have to settle for the role of martyr.