The FHA and the Supreme Court

Lozman’s home before it was seized and destroyed | photo courtesy of Fane Lozman | post by Larry Clinton

Four years ago, a Florida man won a long-shot victory when the U.S. Supreme Court agreed that his floating home was a house, not a vessel subject to seizure by a Florida city. The Floating Homes Associations of Sausalito and Seattle provided documentation as friends of the court that helped the petitioner, Fane Lozman, win his case. The decision means that floating homes are not subject to maritime laws. But, it turns out, Fane Lozman’s legal troubles are still far from over.

Past FHA President Stan Barbarich, who worked with attorney and Issaquah Dock resident Pam Bousquet on the brief, summarized the case in a 2012 issue of the Floating Times:

In 2009, the city of Riviera Beach, Florida, seized the floating home of Fane Lozman. He had first berthed his home in the city’s marina in 2003. But in 2006, the city decided to allow a private, $2.4 billion redevelopment of the marina, which would create a high-end yacht harbor. And they decided to evict the current berth holders under eminent domain law.

When Lozman objected, the city sued in a Circuit Court under maritime law to have the home seized as a vessel—and eventually was able to destroy it. Lozman doggedly continued to press his case all the way to the Supreme Court.

Stan and Pam were asked by the San Francisco law firm that was appealing the earlier Circuit Court decision to help them with background information and the facts of what floating homes are and are not. Stan recalls, “For several weeks, Pam and I did a lot of research and writing for them and our results were incorporated into the brief that was filed with the court. After months of deliberation, the news was delivered, as a definitive decision: we do not live in ‘vessels’ and we are therefore not subject to the enormous rigors of maritime law, Coast Guard regulations or other such control.

“The California Floating Homes Residency Law that FHA wrote had already provided a clear definition of what a floating home is (and that it’s not a “houseboat”), which was and is crucial for us here in California. But the SCOTUS decision put a legal cherry on top, reinforcing the protections granted to us by the FHRL, and also provided significant protections for floating homes across the nation.

Noteworthy: One of the attorneys who worked on Lozman’s brief, Michelle Friedland, was later appointed by Barack Obama to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, and was part of a three-judge panel which recently declined to lift a prior restraining order against the Trump administration’s travel ban.

“The court’s statements explaining their decision were pretty wise, in the main, but one of the comments from Justice Sotomayor said it all. She dismissed the ridiculous notion that, just because something floats, it is therefore a vessel. She stated: ‘Howdy Doody floats, too, but that does not make him a vessel’.”

All floating home owners benefit from the Supreme Court decision, but Fane Lozman recently lost a subsequent lower court appeal for the city to pay his legal fees and reimburse him for the home’s value after it was seized and destroyed. “When the Supreme Court says something, it’s not for the lower courts to blow off their mandate,” Lozman told the Associated Press. “The lower courts are punishing me for winning the case.”