Updated: Judge tosses reform school abuse lawsuit

Next focus could be claims bill in state Legislature
February 24, 2010 03:06:00 PM
ANDREW GANT / News Herald Writer

TALLAHASSEE — A judge has tossed a class-action lawsuit filed by “the White House Boys,” a group of men who
say they were abused at boys reform schools in Marianna and Okeechobee.

Circuit Judge James Shelfer’s dismissal, handed down Tuesday during a hearing in Tallahassee, was based on “the
basic premise that you cannot recover monetary damages for constitutional rights violations,” White House Boys
attorney Greg Hoag said Wednesday.

“That’s obviously what we are seeking, or what we were seeking,” Hoag said.

The named plaintiffs in the case are four men who spent time at the school several decades ago. They represent
hundreds more who have joined the class, many of whom claim they were brutally whipped in a building they called
“the White House” on the campus in Marianna.

Some of them claim certain boys died of abuse and medical neglect, mainly between 1940 and 1960.

In Tuesday’s ruling, Hoag said, Shelfer did not address the allegations themselves. Instead, he cited the First District
Court of Appeal’s opinion in another case against the state.

In that case (Bradsheer and Johnson v. Florida Department of Highway Safety, dismissed in November), the appeals
court found the sovereign immunity doctrine shields the state from paying monetary damages for constitutional
rights violations.

Sovereign immunity means a government cannot be sued in its own court system without its consent.

Tossed from the courts, the group likely will turn its attention to the claims bill process in the state Legislature.

State Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, in July filed for compensation for “victims who were abused while confined to
the Florida Reform School for Boys.” The bill was referred to the Special Master on Claim Bills, where legislators
typically hold hearings to decide whether the Legislature should pass or reject the bill.

Hoag said the claims bill has been blocked before because parties seeking relief must “exhaust all available
administrative and judicial remedies” first.

Short of an appeal of Tuesday’s ruling — which is a possibility — any potential “judicial remedy” has been exhausted.

Fort Walton Beach resident Bryant Middleton, one of the four named “White House Boys” who was a ward at the
Florida Industrial School for Boys in 1959, has said the group is not interested in the state’s money, only justice. He
could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Hoag said the ruling was not unexpected and only a slight disappointment.

“We’ve told our clients all along that it was going to be an uphill battle with all the legal issues,” he said. “They realize
this isn’t it.”

Michael Cantrell, the newest superintendent at the Marianna facility, now known as the Arthur G. Dozier School for
Boys, has said conditions have improved even since last year, when there were complaints of guards threatening
students and a state review found “significant safety and security issues” at the complex.

The judge had not yet signed an order dismissing the case Wednesday, but Hoag said he hoped that order would
be drafted by the end of the week. The White House Boys then have a 30-day window for an appeal.