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Don't Fear The Reaper, He's A Florida Attorney

By Cara Bayles
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Law360 (May 8, 2020, 8:33 PM EDT) -- Attorney Daniel Uhlfelder strikes an unusual contrast on the beaches of Florida's panhandle, where sugar sand meets the bathtub-warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

In spite of concerns about spreading the novel coronavirus, Gov. Ron DeSantis hasn't closed all the state's beaches, and people continue to lounge on the shoreline in pastel swimsuits.

Uhlfelder wears decidedly different garb. Donning a black robe and wielding a plastic scythe, he'll sit on the lifeguard tower or wander the sand, reminding everyone of the risk they take as the coronavirus death toll continues to climb.

Florida attorney Daniel Uhlfelder dressed as the Grim Reaper on a beach in Pensacola on Friday. He has been visiting beaches along the panhandle to remind tourists of the risk they're taking as the coronavirus death toll continues to climb. (Courtesy of Daniel Uhlfelder)

The protest has drawn coverage from both CNN and Saturday Night Live. Always, Uhlfelder noted, he is referred to as a "Florida lawyer."

"Some people don't like what I'm doing," he admitted in an interview with Law360. "But the fact that I'm an attorney I think lends some credibility to it. This is a serious situation. I don't think people are taking it seriously — not our leaders in our state, at least."

Before his appearance as the harvester of souls, he'd started a petition to close all Florida beaches, which garnered nearly 1,900 signatures. When that didn't work, he filed a lawsuit against DeSantis, alleging his "failure to use the emergency powers at his disposal … is an existential threat to Floridians."

A state judge dismissed the case April 8, finding the litigation asked the judiciary to weigh in on executive branch policy, in violation of separation of powers principles. Uhlfelder has appealed.

This isn't his first time taking a stand on a hot-button issue.

For years, Uhlfelder campaigned to have the confederate flag removed from the Walton County courthouse, a cause that earned him death threats. And last year, he represented a nonprofit seeking to enshrine public access to the shore abutting private beachfront homes, including one owned by Mike Huckabee. That led to an online feud that ended with the former Arkansas governor filing a bar complaint against him.

And his newest costumed protest is stirring up controversy not just about the novel coronavirus, but also about the proper conduct for a lawyer.

"My impression is that he is an unrepentant attention-grabber," said David Smolker of Smolker Bartlett Loeb Hinds & Thompson, a Tampa-based attorney who fought opposite Uhlfelder in litigation over public access to beachfront property.

Stephen Turner, a Tallahassee attorney who has worked with Uhlfelder on numerous cases, said he admired his work as a "very diligent" attorney, but not his costume.

"It's not a form of protest that I believe is appropriate for a lawyer," he said. "I'm an old lawyer, and I just don't believe in all that."

But Matt Weidner, an attorney who worked with Uhlfelder on foreclosure defense advocacy, said the stunt reflected his friend's frustration with old advocacy methods.

"I give Dan a lot of credit for raising the profile of this issue in a way that captures attention," he said. "I think fundamentally, that's the job of a lawyer. How do you advocate a position? The easy way is with motions. That's the traditional way. But that's becoming less and less successful."

Born in Miami and raised in Tallahassee, Uhlfelder is a second-generation Floridian and attorney.

His father, Steve Uhlfelder, was a long-time partner at Holland & Knight LLP and politically well-connected. He was tapped by six different Florida governors — three Republicans and three Democrats — for various public roles, and he worked as counsel for former President Bill Clinton's 1996 campaign. Now, as a lobbyist, he represents clients like UPS, the hospitality company Delaware North and the Florida Association of Orthodontists.

But it's his father's work as a public defender early in his career and his public interest litigation that stuck with Daniel Uhlfelder. As the son of a German Jew who escaped Nazi Germany just in time, the elder Uhlfelder instilled in his family the importance of standing up to injustice.

"I was just raised where people in the law were looked up to more," Daniel Uhlfelder said. "Now I think a lot of why we don't have the reputation we should is because lawyers are seen as the tools of big business or the status quo."

A graduate of Stanford and the University of Florida, Uhlfelder clerked for a federal judge and previously worked at Colson Hicks Eidson, a Coral Gables-based personal injury firm. But he ultimately decided to hang his own shingle, and founded a law firm that handles what he calls "tedious" but "challenging" civil litigation. He moved to Santa Rosa in 2001, in search of "small town" living.

That lifestyle infuses his courtroom manner, says Weidner, who described Uhlfelder as "Perry Masonish." He said that's fitting in the rural courthouses of the panhandle.

"If you think of a folksy, homespun guy, that's what he is. [He's] sort of a dying breed who chooses to fight for the little guy as opposed to these big corporate interests," he said.

When Uhlfelder first visited the Walton courthouse, he saw the confederate battle flag flying. In 2002, he worked alongside the local chapter of the NAACP to have the flag removed, but the county commissioners rejected the request.

In 2015, after a white supremacist murdered nine black parishioners at a church in South Carolina, the NAACP and Uhlfelder again lobbied to have the flag taken down. He said they had little help from other members of the bar.

"All these lawyers would come up to me and say, 'I really appreciate [what you're doing],'" he said. "And I'm like, 'Well, can you like, help me out?' And they'd be like, 'No, I don't want to upset people.'"

The commission decided to replace the more widely known confederate flag— a blue jack with white stars on a red background — with another version of the confederate flag, featuring a circle of stars and three red and white stripes. At the time, Uhlfelder called the decision "a cop-out, not a compromise."

His efforts were controversial in rural Florida, according to Seth Galloway, a partner at Uhlfelder's law office.

"Ultimately he was subject to death threats and had to get security for his house. The racists really came out of the woodwork," he said. "It wasn't a popular move, especially for a young Jewish lawyer."

But Galloway said Uhlfelder's advocacy for public access to beaches has made him "a populist folk hero around here."

In recent years, Walton County property owners with beachfront homes have argued the state owns the "wet sand" portion of the beach, and the dry shoreline that the tide never touches serves as the private property mark.

In 2017, the Walton Board of County Commissioners passed an ordinance "protecting the public's long-standing customary use of the dry sand areas." Property owners challenged the law in federal court and lost. But in 2018, the state legislature passed a law mandating a three-step system for such ordinances, including filing litigation in state court.

Walton County filed a civil case in 2018. In 2019, Florida Beaches For All, a nonprofit representing Walton residents and business owners in favor of public access, joined the case. Uhlfelder was the group's lawyer.

"I believe access and use of beaches in Florida is a fundamental right," he said. "There's been a successful effort in our county to privatize those beaches."

Among the thousands of beachfront homeowners seeking claims to the dry sand was Huckabee. In 2019, he sought — and won — the title to his property up to the high water line.

Uhlfelder, who had just won his motion to intervene in the Walton case, posted the property right complaint on Twitter. He also retweeted editorial cartoons depicting Huckabee as a pirate with a treasure map pointing to the panhandle. When one Huckabee ally asked his Twitter followers to help him think of a catchy Secret Service code name for the former governor, Uhlfelder suggested "beach thief." He also retweeted other users' vivid critiques of Huckabee.

Huckabee filed a bar complaint against Uhlfelder, calling his tweets "unprofessional and unethical." He said Uhlfedler baselessly accused him "of being very sensitive" and of theft, which he noted was "a crime of moral turpitude."

All of that violated Florida's Rules of Professional Conduct, Huckabee alleged, pointing to a passage that forbids disparaging or humiliating a litigant on the basis of a protected status like race, religion, gender or income.

Attorney Daniel Uhlfelder, minus the Grim Reaper costume that has garnered him notoriety. (Courtesy of Daniel Uhlfelder)

In a response, Uhlfelder's attorney wrote that "a lawyer does not check First Amendment rights at the door to admission to the Florida Bar."

But Uhlfelder soon stepped down as counsel to Florida Beaches For All.

The organization could not be reached for comment, but in a contemporaneous interview with The Panama City News Herald, founder Dave Rauschkolb said the group was seeking "a new legal team."

He added the group was "singularly focused on a non-partisan effort" to repeal the 2018 state law, and the newspaper suggested Uhlfelder's "politically charged Twitter feed" could be a liability for that cause.

Huckabee's bar complaint is still with the Grievance Committee, according to a spokesperson for the Florida State Bar, and Uhlfelder is still listed as a member in good standing.

Uhlfelder himself celebrated the bar complaint, which he posted on Twitter. He says in a matter of hours, it boosted his Twitter follower count from 400 to more than 100,000.

He started a political action committee called Make My Day PAC, which touts the goal of helping "other Americans fight back against bad actors like Mike Huckabee." Uhlfelder, who used to be a member of the Republican Party of Florida Jewish Leadership Advisory Council, is using the PAC to fundraise for Democratic candidates.

In spite of this colorful history, Uhlfelder says he surprised even himself when he ended up protesting on the beach in costume.

It happened almost by coincidence, he said, and started with a tyvek suit.

He'd gone to his local hardware store to buy face masks and saw they also carried full-body paint suits with respirator masks. He bought a few on an impulse.

Upon driving home a few days later, he says he passed beaches swarmed with students on spring break.

"It was like a petri dish of people," he said. "It was spring break on steroids. It was even busier then because all the other areas were doing the right thing and telling people to stay home, so everyone was like, 'Let's just go to Florida, go to the beach and spread the virus all over the world.'"

He decided to walk the shore in one of the suits that had been sitting in his car to make a point. He also wore it to the governor's mansion before suing DeSantis, he said.

At first, he felt he'd had some success with the hazmat suit. But then it seemed there was another swell of tourists. He asked a friend to make him a black-linen Grim Reaper costume, and he soon started roaming Florida's beaches, scythe in hand.

He's now on a Grim Reaper tour. On Friday, he visited a beach in Pensacola.

There is some irony, he admits, in advocating to maintain public access to beaches and then trying to close them down months later.

"I believe in public beaches, and I believe in public health," he said.

--Editing by Philip Shea and Kelly Duncan.

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

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