Stephen Walker cites ‘personal and professional relationship’ with attorney representing Kompothecras family
The 12th Judicial Circuit Court judge presiding over the two lawsuits challenging Sarasota County Commission approval of high-rise hotels on Siesta Key has recused himself from those cases.
Judge Stephen M. Walker’s Order of Recusal was filed with the court on March 21, just four days after he conducted a hearing during which he ordered the cases to be consolidated for trial. He also had scheduled the trial for October.
In his March 21 Order of Recusal, Walker noted his “personal and professional relationship” with the law firm representing Intervenors 1260 Inc., Stickney Storage LLC, and Siesta Key Parking LLC. The principal of those firms is Siesta Key businessman and chiropractor Dr. Gary Kompothecras, who plans to build a hotel at the intersection of Old Stickney Point Road and Peacock Road, on the southern portion of Siesta Key.
The attorney who represented the Kompothecras family during the 2021 Sarasota County Planning and County commission hearings on the proposal for that hotel — plus a five-story parking garage and retail space between Old Stickney Point Road and Stickney Point Road — was Charles D. Bailey III of the Williams Parker firm in Sarasota.
Bailey was among the attorneys listed on the Order of Recusal as having been provided a copy of it.
The order also explains that Chief Judge Charles Roberts has been requested to assign the case to another judge.
Additionally, it says, “Any hearings scheduled in front of [Walker] must be cancelled by the scheduling party.”
Walker’s 12th Judicial Circuit biography notes that he began his service on the bench in January 2015. He is a 1990 graduate of the University of Florida College of Law, it adds, and he was certified by the Florida Bar as a specialist in criminal trial law in August 2003.
Bailey’s biography on the Williams Parker website points out that he earned his law degree at the Mercer University School of Law. His biography adds, “Prior to joining the firm, Charlie worked as an Assistant County Attorney representing Sarasota’s Board of County Commissioners with respect to zoning, land use, eminent domain, and administrative law matters.”
Further, it notes, “Charlie is a seventh generation Floridian, past chair of the board of directors of The Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce, a past board member of the United Way Suncoast, and past chairman of the United Way’s annual campaign.”
Siesta resident Lourdes Ramirez was the plaintiff who filed the first of the two hotel complaints; that occurred on Nov. 24, 2021. In a search of court records, The Sarasota News Leader found that the first document Judge Walker issued after having been assigned to that case was dated Jan. 10, 2022.
In a March 23 email blast to supporters of her litigation, Ramirez used the subject line, “Bizarre turn of events,” and then began the email by writing, “We have just received surprising news!”
She then announced Walker’s recusal and provided an update on the March 17 hearing.
Back to March 17 …
After the March 17 hearing that Walker conducted in the hotel cases — which lasted approximately 12 minutes — he said the two lawsuits filed in late 2021 to try to prevent the construction of the hotels on Siesta Key would be consolidated for a trial that he tentatively scheduled for the period beginning Oct. 9.
The first case — which, as noted above, was filed by Ramirez — initially was set for trial this month. The second case, which originally involved four plaintiffs and is down to three, was filed a few days later, but also in November 2021. It had been set for trial in June.
The remaining plaintiffs in that second complaint are south Siesta Key resident Robert Sax, who lives in the Marina Del Sol condominium complex, east of the site where Kompothecras’ seven-story, 120-room hotel is planned on Old Stickney Point Road; the Marina Del Sol Condominium Association; and the 222 Beach Road Owners Association, whose condominium complex is close to the four parcels proposed as the site of a 170-room, eight-story hotel between Beach Road and Calle Miramar, on the edge of Siesta Village.
James P. Wallace III, the fourth original plaintiff, formally withdrew from that lawsuit last year, as he was focused on a separate legal issue related to traffic congestion on the Stickney Point Road access to Siesta Key.
Shane Costello of the Tampa law firm Hill Ward Henderson — one of the attorneys for the Intervenors in the cases — the developers and owners of both sites where the hotels would stand — did point out to Walker that his clients would prefer not to have to wait until fall, as both the lawsuits were filed more than a year ago.
And though Ramirez initially opposed the potential that the complaints would be consolidated for trial, Richard Grosso of Plantation, one of her attorneys, told Walker on March 17, “We wouldn’t necessarily oppose [consolidation] anymore.” That decision, he continued, was based on a stipulation that Walker had included in a ruling following a Feb. 15 hearing on a motion that had been filed by the attorneys for the hotel developers and site owners.
Grosso had pointed out on Feb. 15 that Ramirez did not favor the prospect of consolidation at that time because of the potential that she ultimately could incur far higher attorneys’ fees if her lawyers had to sit through parts of a trial that had no bearing on her case. Grosso also had noted the concern that the Office of the County Attorney and the lawyers for the Intervenors might file motions seeking more discovery in the case. “Discovery” refers to the process of interviewing individuals who may have information relative to a complaint and the gathering of pertinent materials, as attorneys work to build what they hope will be a winning case.
In Judge Walker’s Feb. 21 written order following the Feb. 15 hearing, he denied the motion for consolidation — given the situation at that time. However, he added, “If factual or legal issues are to be heard at trial that do not pertain to the case brought by Plaintiff Ramirez, the Court will appropriately segment the trial so that Plaintiff Ramirez and her counsel are not required to appear when any such factual or legal issues are heard.”
Therefore, Grosso said on March 17, “We could be available anytime [for trial].”
If at all possible, Costello told Walker, the Intervenors would prefer keeping the June trial date.
However, David Smolker, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs in the second case — which involves both planned hotels — explained again on March 17 that a prior commitment he has for a trial in Walton County would not enable him to be ready for the hotel cases to be heard in June.
Walker did ask whether that Walton County trial date was a certainty.
“Yes, it is, your honor,” Smolker, whose Smolker Matthews firm also is located in Tampa, told Walker.
When the judge asked Smolker whether the preparation for that other case was preventing him from preparing for the second Siesta hotel lawsuit, Smolker confirmed that.
Moreover, Smolker explained, his situation had been complicated by the fact that he had been serving as the attorney for New College of Florida, which is his alma mater. (Gov. Ron DeSantis’ appointment of new, conservative members of the New College board has resulted in numerous changes at the school, as the news media has reported.)
However, Smolker continued, “I am no longer representing New College as of the end of February.”
“Probably best that we don’t have any conversations about New College,” Walker responded with a chuckle.
“You’re right,” Smolker agreed, noting that he provided the information only to make it clear that he had not had “the time to devote to [the hotel] case.”
Ruling still awaited in Ramirez case
Further during the March 17 hearing, Walker told the attorneys that he still was working on a ruling in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 hearing that he had conducted in Ramirez’s case. The parties had taken turns that day to argue for summary judgment for their clients. (The latter term refers to a ruling in favor of one party, on the basis of the case filings and, often, oral arguments, without the necessity of a trial.)
“The volume of information [provided to the court] is vast,” Walker pointed out. “It’s a daunting challenge, going through everything.”
Additionally, he said, Assistant County Attorney David Pearce recently had filed what is called a Notice of Supplemental Authority, which focuses on a new judicial ruling that the Office of the County Attorney finds relevant to the hotel litigation.
Walker told Grosso, Ramirez’s attorney, “I think it’s completely appropriate for the court to consider that legal authority as part of the analysis.”
“Yes, your honor,” Grosso replied, adding that he had filed a notice that lays out Ramirez’s position on the case about which Pearce had written.
Ramirez also referenced the summary judgment issue in her March 23 email blast about Walker’s recusal, writing that she and her attorneys have no idea what will happen in regard to that.
Additionally, during the March 17 hearing, Walker told the attorneys, “I’m not in love with putting things off until October, but I recognize that we all have busy dates.”
He did remind them that the 12th Judicial Circuit has a three-week trial period beginning in August, and he would have a lot of flexibility to conduct the hotel complaints trial during that timeframe.
Then Smolker explained that he has yet another trial scheduled during that month, and he has a three-week family vacation set for July.
“I try to give reasonable deference to those types of things,” Walker responded.
When Walker asked Grosso about waiting until the trial period beginning on Oct. 9, Grosso said that he had no objection to that.
After Costello, the Intervenors’ attorney, voiced his clients’ “strong preference” for consolidation and a June trial date, the judge reminded him about Smolker’s earlier comments.
Then Costello added, “Mr. Smolker and his clients have not done one shred of discovery in this case.” Only the Office of the County Attorney and he and his co-counsel with Hill Ward & Henderson have conducted discovery, Costello said.
“That’s factually inaccurate,” Smolker stressed, pointing out that he and his co-counsel had “served extensive document production requests” of Sarasota County.
Without commenting on that exchange of remarks, Walker asked Pearce of the Office of the County Attorney whether he would be ready to go to trial in the hotel litigation, as discussed that morning.
“The county is ready on either the June date or the October date,” Pearce said.
“Based on what I’ve heard here today,” Walker told the attorneys, “I’m inclined to set this on the October trial docket.”