Judge Says Fla. Virus Restrictions Protect 'Majestic Freedoms'

By Mike LaSusa
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Law360 (May 14, 2020, 10:15 PM EDT) -- A federal judge in West Palm Beach tossed a suit challenging COVID-19-related restrictions ordered by Florida Gov. Ron Desantis, saying the limitations on business and other activities are necessary to protect citizens' "majestic freedoms."

U.S. District Judge Raag Singhal permanently threw out the lawsuit lodged by Debra Henry, a restaurant and bar worker who was laid off amid the economic tailspin brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.

Judge Singhal said Henry's case failed because she couldn't adequately link her dismissal to the governor's orders.

"It should go without saying that nowhere in the executive orders was there direction from the governor to food-service businesses that they must lay-off individuals," the judge said. "To the contrary, again, the executive orders make it rather clear that their stated intent was to strike a balance in safeguarding the general public health with protecting jobs and Florida's economy."

Moreover, Judge Singhal said Henry hadn't actually shown that any of her constitutional rights had been impacted by the orders.

"The governor's actions are reasonable and measured, based on data and science, and rationally related to a legitimate end," the judge said. "In other words, petitioner is subject to a pause in her life, as authorized by law, in exchange for and in an effort to maintain the majestic freedoms enjoyed in America prior to, during, and after this pandemic."

Henry's attorney Cory C. Strolla vowed to appeal, calling the decision "premature and a violation of our client's due process rights" and saying they should have had a week to respond to a motion to dismiss filed on Monday by the governor.

"The district judge took less than 72 hours to file his 20-page order," Strolla told Law360, also noting Judge Singhal's ties to the Republican Party. "This circumvented our client's ability to both lawfully and timely respond to the governor's motion by four full days."

Henry isn't the only one who has challenged Desantis' response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Shortly after Henry filed her suit on May 1 in federal court, a former attorney asked the Florida Supreme Court to void DeSantis' executive orders, arguing the governor lacked legal authority to impose the social distancing restrictions on the state's citizens and businesses.

Palm Beach County resident William S. Abramson argued in his petition last week that the governor's reliance on the State Emergency Management Act to shut down nonessential businesses and encourage social distancing among residents is misplaced because the law did not contemplate the current public health crisis as a covered emergency.

Challenges to similar orders have been seen across the country, as Judge Singhal acknowledged Thursday.

"Our country was founded on bedrock, core principles. The Bill of Rights is not a suggestion; the Constitution is not optional," the judge said. "This order does not authorize elected officials to escalate the slow erosion of constitutional rights in the name of emergency authority."

Counsel for Desantis did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.

Henry is represented by Cory C. Strolla and Donna Peterson.

Desantis is represented by Colleen M. Ernst, Joseph W. Jacquot and Joshua E. Pratt of the Executive Office of the Governor and Edward M. Wenger of Hopping Green & Sams PA.

The case is Debra Henry v. Ron Desantis, case number 9:20-cv-80729, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida.

--Additional reporting by Nathan Hale. Editing by Daniel King.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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Case Information

Case Title

Henry v. Desantis


Case Number

9:20-cv-80729

Court

Florida Southern

Nature of Suit

Civil Rights: Other

Judge

Raag Singhal

Date Filed

May 01, 2020

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