Jim Ficken, a 69-year-old retiree from Dunedin, Florida, is at risk of losing his home because he is unable to pay the $30,000 in fines that accrued from leaving his lawn uncut, according to an article by the Washington Post.
In response, Ficken filed a lawsuit against the city of Dunedin last week. According to the lawsuit, his lawn troubles began after his elderly mother fell ill in 2015. That’s when he started making regular, extended trips to care for her in South Carolina.
The first time he let the lawn get too long, the city cited him but did not fine him (the city code prohibits grass longer than 10 inches tall). He mowed it upon his return from South Carolina and then hired a friend to periodically mow for him any time he was away.
This worked for a few years until last summer when Ficken said he tried to contact the friend to make sure he was mowing the lawn and learned from the friend’s family member that he had unexpectedly passed away.
The city had begun fining him at a rate of $500 per day starting July 5, 2018, more than a week after the friend had stopped coming to mow.
According to the lawsuit, if the city believes someone is a repeat violator, inspectors are not required to issue warnings or notices of fines to the resident. Because Ficken had been cited before, the city considered him a repeat offender.
Attorneys say he was not notified of the fines until Aug. 20, when a city inspector dropped by to warn him verbally about the issue. The fines stopped after Ficken bought a lawn mower and mowed his grass the next day, but the fines began again after he left and the person he hired to mow was late to the job.
He learned of the full extent of his financial trouble on Sept. 18 where a letter in the mail informed him that two liens had been placed on his house, totaling nearly $30,000.
The city sent him a letter Feb. 13, 2019, warning that if he didn’t pay the $30,000 in 15 days, the city would pursue foreclosure. Unable to pay the fines, the city moved to foreclose May 7, which is when Ficken filed his lawsuit against the city.
The lawsuit argues that Dunedin’s code-enforcement violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on excessive fines, saying the punishment is disproportionate to the offense and that the city never considered Ficken’s ability to pay.
The city has not commented on the lawsuit, but Dunedin Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski defended the city’s code enforcement because Ficken was a repeat offender.