Tortoise movers sue Florida for $500,000 in license dispute

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Two men who relocate gopher tortoises are suing Florida’s wildlife commission, saying they should be awarded at least $500,000 in damages because the agency violated due process by prematurely revoking their company’s license for less than three weeks.

The lawsuit names the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and one of its employees, Claire Sunquist Blunden. It was filed in Leon County Circuit Court by Kaiser Consulting Group LLC, Drew Kaiser and John Wilson, The Daytona Beach News-Journal reported.

Gopher tortoises are listed as threatened and must be relocated prior to land development. The state accused Kaiser and Wilson of failing to report dead tortoises, overstocking pens for the tortoises and not maintaining a pen that was in disrepair.

According to the lawsuit, the agency warned Kaiser on March 19 that the licenses would be revoked if they didn’t request a hearing. That same day, the agency posted on its website that the pair’s licenses had been revoked. The agency then reinstated them on April 7, describing the abrupt revocation as a “procedural error.”

“It was a fundamental constitutional violation of their rights,” said Kenneth G. Oertel, their Tallahassee attorney. He said the agency put his clients out of business without a hearing or a chance to question or challenge the action.

“They just took it without any notice, without any process, without anything,” Oertel told the newspaper. “They just wrote them a letter saying ‘your license is terminated’. Well, Florida law doesn’t allow an agency to do that. You’ve got to give what’s called due process.”

The wildlife agency’s spokeswoman Carli Segelson, told the newspaper she couldn’t comment. “This is an ongoing investigation and we will release additional details when available,” Segelson said in an email.

Oertel said the agency described finding fragments of tortoise shells on large ranches, and said his clients didn’t know about those remnants.

“The rule says you have to report tortoises that you actually discover,” Oertel said. “You can’t report what you don’t know.”

The lawsuit accuses the agency’s employees of “a purposeful and malicious effort” to put them out of business.