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Florida Judge Refuses To Scuttle 'Grim Reaper' Disciplinary Probe

Man in grim reaper costume stands on a crowded beach
Daniel Uhlfelder in Jacksonville Beach in July 2020

A Northwest Florida judge has refused to toss out a lawsuit seeking possible sanctions against a Santa Rosa County attorney who drew national attention for dressing as the Grim Reaper to criticize Gov. Ron DeSantis’ handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Prosecutors in March filed a motion in Walton County to pursue sanctions against lawyer Daniel Uhlfelder, who traveled throughout the state in the macabre costume to call attention to issues such as the Republican governor’s refusal to close beaches amid the pandemic.

The probe into possible sanctions came at the direction of a three-judge panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal, which took the rare step of ordering State Attorney Ginger Bowden Madden to pursue discipline against Uhlfelder.

Uhlfelder’s lawyer, Richard Greenberg, asked Santa Rosa County Circuit Judge Scott Duncan to dismiss the case, arguing that the appeals court’s order for the possible sanctions fails to comply with a disciplinary rule cited by the three-judge panel.

The seldom-used rule allows judges to direct state attorneys to file a motion seeking discipline if a lawyer “has been guilty of any unprofessional act” laid out in Florida Bar regulations.

During a June 7 hearing on Uhlfelder’s request to have the case dismissed, Greenberg told Duncan that the appeals court’s order does not comply with the rule because Uhlfelder has not been found guilty of any wrongdoing.

But a month later, Duncan refused to scuttle the case.

“Having carefully considered respondent’s motion, the state’s response, the respondent’s reply, the record, the arguments at the hearing, and applicable law, the court finds that respondent’s motion should be denied,” the judge wrote in a brief order issued Friday.

The legal wrangling is rooted in a lawsuit Uhlfelder filed in March 2020 to try to force the governor to close beaches to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Leon County Circuit Judge Kevin Carroll ruled that he lacked the authority to order the governor to shut down beaches and encouraged Uhlfelder to ask a higher court to weigh in on the issue. Uhlfelder took the case to the Tallahassee-based appeals court.

But the three-judge panel on Feb. 5 asked the Bar to consider imposing sanctions against Uhlfelder, saying there was “no good-faith basis” for the appeal and accusing Uhlfelder and his lawyers of using “this court merely as a stage from which to act out their version of political theater.”

The News Service of Florida wrote about the order in a story that was published online by the Tallahassee Democrat, a News Service subscriber. The story, as published by the Democrat, also included comments that Uhlfelder made during a brief interview with the USA TODAY NETWORK-Florida Capital Bureau, which is affiliated with the Democrat.

“I do find it interesting that this opinion attacking my critiques of Gov. DeSantis appeared just two days after I launched a (political) committee to remove Ron DeSantis,” Uhlfelder said during the interview, referring to what is dubbed the Remove Ron political committee.

After the story was published, the three-judge panel ordered Bowden Madden’s office to file a motion seeking to discipline Uhlfelder for “putatively unprofessional conduct.”

In a motion filed in March, Assistant State Attorney Anne N. Izzo accused Uhlfelder of “violating rules of professional conduct” for lawyers “as well as violating the oath of admission to The Florida Bar.” The motion did not specify what type of discipline prosecutors are considering.

Greenberg, in a response to the motion, said that Uhlfelder hadn’t done anything wrong and asked a judge to dismiss the case, arguing that the state lacks a basis to pursue sanctions.

The appeals court’s Feb. 8 order requiring Bowden Madden to file a motion regarding Uhlfelder “contains no assertion” that Uhlfelder has been found guilty of any unprofessional conduct, Greenberg wrote in the six-page response.

In addition to the rare move of ordering Bowden Madden’s office to pursue sanctions against Uhlfelder, the three-judge panel ordered the Panhandle prosecutor’s office to file monthly status reports on the case with the appeals court.

An evidentiary hearing in the case has not been set, according to Walton County court records. The court records also show that three judges from the 1st Judicial Circuit were recused from the case, which is now assigned to Santa Rosa County Circuit Judge Scott Duncan.