BELLEAIR BEACH — Mayor Joseph Manzo’s penchant for threatening and even taking legal action against others broadened last month to enlist his life partner, who filed a federal lawsuit against the city last month.
June VanScoyoc, who has been Manzo’s life partner for the past seven years, filed a civil rights lawsuit in the U.S. Middle District Court in Tampa in July.
In it, she alleges that nine public officials and residents from Belleair Beach and neighboring Belleair Shore, as well as the city of Belleair Beach and the town of Belleair Shore, violated her civil rights as protected by the U.S. Constitution’s First and Fourteenth Amendments.
Specifically named in the lawsuit are present and former Belleair Beach City Council members Glenn Gunn, Jody Shirley, Rita Swope, and David Gattis; Belleair Shore Town Clerk Barbara Colucci; and Belleair Beach residents Rick Colucci, Keith Macari, Mark Goldman, and Wendy Gattis.
The group conspired, according to VanScoyoc’s lawsuit, to “defame and libel” her in retaliation for her exercise of her First Amendment right to speak as a citizen at a June 2020 Belleair Shore commission meeting.
At that meeting, VanScoyoc identified her official position in Belleair Beach and her relationship with Manzo but stressed that she was speaking only for herself.
She complained that a letter sent to Belleair Beach by Belleair Shore Town Clerk Barbara Colucci was “accusatory, disparaging, and defamatory” about VanScoyoc as well as Manzo and Belleair Beach Council member Marvin Behm.
“I respectfully ask that this (Belleair Shore) Mayor and town commission renounce the views expressed by Ms. Colucci and take whatever steps you deem necessary…,” VanScoyoc told the Belleair Shore commission. No “steps” were taken.
Less than a month later, two members of the Belleair Beach commission pushed for VanScoyoc to be removed from her post as chair of the city’s Parks and Recreation Board.
During that debate, Manzo threatened that VanScoyoc could sue the city for their action.
Following nearly an hour-long debate the council acknowledged her positive role leading the board but nonetheless removed her.
Now, a year later, Manzo’s threat has come to pass.
VanScoyoc’s lawsuit alleges the 11 defendants acted “with malicious purpose in reckless, wanton and willful disregard of (VanScoyoc’s) civil rights.”
Those actions, according to the suit, included “extortion,” “blackmail,” and pressure on the Sheriff’s Office to arrest VanScoyoc.
Also, an anonymous letter that was distributed city-wide claimed individual residents would be financially liable, while “harassing phone calls, emails and letters” were sent to her attorneys by residents who were “riled up by and acting on behalf of the conspiracy,” according to the lawsuit.
The suit also alleges a noisy political rally ostensibly in support of law enforcement was deliberately held outside Manzo’s home, often starting early in the morning and continuing for about 115 days.
“The conspiracy’s harassment of the plaintiff continues in a wide variety of social media platforms to this day,” the suit states.
The suit also incorporates alleged violations of state law (conspiracy and defamation), which, under law, can be combined with the federal case.
Manzo stresses he is not VanScoyoc’s attorney of record, but admits he has given her advice, just as he has advised his City Council.
“I read the federal law into the record and warned the council about violating the law,” Manzo said. “I just want justice.”
If asked, he says will be a witness for both sides in the dispute.
“I hate to see my city sued but I also hate to see the federal Constitution violated. If these allegations are proven, this is a disgusting situation for Belleair Beach,” Manzo said.
“This is a big, big deal. Lawsuits usually involve damages and attorney fees,” Manzo said. “This could mean a massive amount for the city.”
Potential financial cost to city
Last week, several residents spoke to the City Council about their concerns over how much the lawsuit could cost the city, and even asked three of the people named in the suit and still on the council to resign. They have not.
VanScoyoc’s lawsuit seeks both compensatory and punitive damages, as well as attorney’s fees, although the actual amount is not enumerated.
However, an August 2020 letter sent by VanScoyoc’s attorneys to the two cities notified them that VanScoyoc planned to sue “for damages in excess of $200,000” for her “unlawful” removal from the parks board.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1876 that damages of any sort “shall be precisely commensurate with the injury suffered, neither more nor less.” Such damages can include lost wages or income, medical bills, repair of damaged property, and even emotional distress, according to the Cornell Law Legal Information Institute.
In 1968, the Court ruled that public employees can sue their government employers over speech issues: "The interests of the (employee) as a citizen, in commenting on matters of public concern," must be balanced against "the interest of the State as an employer, in promoting the efficiency of the public services it performs through its employees."
A federal circuit court of appeals upheld a $4 million award in a 2019 case brought by a police chief who had been retaliated against for speaking out about alleged misconduct by his city’s manager.
The Supreme Court recently ruled in another case involving how damages should be evaluated in a First Amendment issue, deciding that even if the damage award sought is considered nominal, the case should go forward.
Compensatory damages are designed to restore victims to their state prior to the acts at issue and can include such issues as mental anguish and loss of reputation, as well as physical or financial losses.
Punitive damages are usually awarded in personal injury cases as a form of punishment for intentional acts at issue in a case. The Supreme Court has limited such damages to no more than 10 times the amount awarded for other types of damages.
For example, if a court awards $10,000 in compensatory damages, punitive damages would be limited to no more than $100,000.
If VanScoyoc were to be awarded the originally cited $200,000 in compensatory damages, punitive damages could be as high as $2 million.
City response to lawsuit
The city is being defended by an outside attorney, Jay Daigneault, who is being paid through the city’s liability insurance policy with the Florida League of Cities.
In a motion filed last week with the District Court, Daigneault called VanScoyoc’s lawsuit “a classic shotgun pleading … specifically condemned by the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.”
Shotgun pleadings, Daigneault says, are assertions of multiple claims against multiple defendants that fail to specify which acts were committed by which defendants and that lump all allegations into each alleged count.
Daigneault is asking the court to reject VanScoyoc’s complaint and require her attorneys to provide a “more definitive statement” that would specify which defendants were responsible for which acts, as well as separate the counts relating to each defendant and refrain from including all the allegations in all the counts.
City Manager Lynn Rives was reluctant to discuss the lawsuit when interviewed by the Beacon, only calling it a “sad situation” that ultimately “will be decided by the court.”
He stressed, however, that City Council members were “within their right” to essentially fire VanScoyoc.
“She took the position (on the parks board) and acted like she was a city employee. Then she tried to use her position to get people who worked in another city to be fired. That is not what you do,” Rives said.
The city’s charter specifically states that “a member of any board or committee may be removed, for any reason, by a majority vote of the council.”
Rives directed most of his criticism at Manzo, saying that the lawsuit the mayor filed as an individual against neighboring town Belleair Shore last year and his constant threats to file a lawsuit against anyone who argues with him have “created ill will” with the community.
“My approach is to let’s talk and work this out,” Rives said. “Unfortunately, the mayor threatens to sue anybody. He even threatened to sue me because my wife said something he didn’t like on social media. He is not a typical mayor.”
Manzo warned council
Manzo, who is an attorney, frequently uses a loud, belligerent style when running council meetings and is quick to shut down council members’ comments when he believes they violate the council’s meeting rules.
At the July 2020 meeting during which the council approved removing VanScoyoc from the Parks and Recreation Board, Manzo engaged in a long verbal battle with Swope who, along with Gattis, called for removing VanScoyoc.
At one point, Gattis urged Manzo to “calm down and lower your voice.”
Manzo charged that Swope and Gattis had violated their oaths of office by seeking VanScoyoc’s removal and therefore were “subject to recall and removal.”
He said that Swope had “got the city into a Section 1983 (federal code) lawsuit if June VanScoyoc wishes to pursue it.”
Just before the council voted 4-3 to remove VanScoyoc, Manzo warned them that “you vote for this at your own peril.”
When asked this week by the Beacon, Manzo freely admitted he has no intention to change how he runs city meetings, nor will he stop threatening legal action when he feels it is called for.
“If people keep trying to push the city around, I will keep filing lawsuits,” Manzo said.