Oakes v. Collier Cnty.

Decision Date27 January 2021
Docket NumberCase No: 2:20-cv-568-FtM-38NPM
Citation515 F.Supp.3d 1202
CourtU.S. District Court — Middle District of Florida
Parties Francis A. OAKES, III, Oakes Farms, Inc. and Seed to Table, LLC, Plaintiffs, v. COLLIER COUNTY, Defendant.

Steven J. Bracci, Naples, FL, for Plaintiff.

Colleen M. Greene, Jeffrey A. Klatzkow, Naples, FL, for Defendant.



Before the Court is Defendant Collier County's Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 68) and Plaintiffs’ response in opposition (Doc. 69). The Court grants the Motion.


This is a COVID-19 mask mandate case. In July 2020, the County's Board of Commissioners passed an emergency order requiring everyone in certain businesses to wear face coverings ("Order 5"). Order 5 applied to unincorporated parts of the County—allowing incorporated areas (i.e., those within municipalities) to opt in.

Plaintiff Francis Oakes is a local businessowner. Plaintiff Oakes Farms, Inc. runs a grocery store called Seed to Table in an unincorporated part of the County. And Plaintiff Seed to Table, LLC is another of Oakes’ entities. Along with Seed to Table, Oakes owns other stores called Oakes Farms Market and Food and Thought. Shortly after passing Order 5, the County cited Oakes Farms and Seed to Table (together, the "Stores") for mask violations. Then, Plaintiffs sued on various federal and state law theories.

During the litigation, Order 5 expired and the County replaced it with Order 6. When that expired, the County adopted Order 7, which expires in April 2021. This new mask mandate is narrower, requiring face coverings in businesses "where social distancing is not possible." (Doc. 67-8 at 3). What's more, in response to an executive order by Florida's Governor, Order 7 prescribes the County can only cite businesses—not individuals—for violations.

Given the shifting landscape, the Court held Order 7 mooted many of Plaintiffs’ claims, but some survived that change. (Doc. 63). In doing so, the Court held, one claim was sufficient, another wasn't, and the briefing insufficient on two others. Plaintiffs amended. Now, the Complaint has four claims: (1) facial and as-applied equal protection challenges; (2) facial and as applied First Amendment attacks; (3) Florida administrative procedure violations in rulemaking; and (4) simple trespass.


A complaint must recite "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2). This pleading standard "does not require ‘detailed factual allegations,’ but it demands more than an unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation." Ashcroft v. Iqbal , 556 U.S. 662, 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly , 550 U.S. 544, 555, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007) ). "To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.’ " Id. (quoting Twombly , 550 U.S. at 570, 127 S.Ct. 1955 ). A facially plausible claim allows a "court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Id.

A. Equal Protection

Under the Fourteenth Amendment, no state can "deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." U.S. Const. amend XIV, § 1. The Stores bring both a facial and as-applied equal protection challenge. The Court takes each in turn.3

1. Facial Challenge

The attack on Order 5 is moot. (Doc. 63 at 9). So this claim is limited to Order 7.

The Stores challenge Order 7 facially under the Equal Protection Clause. In short, Order 7 passes muster.

"When a law does not infringe on a fundamental right or discriminate on account of a suspect classification, but instead is a general economic regulation, we review it only for a rational basis."4 Ga. Elec. Life Safety & Sys. Ass'n v. City of Sandy Springs, Ga. , 965 F.3d 1270, 1275 (11th Cir. 2020). This review applies to statutes and local ordinances alike.5 Checker Cab Operators, Inc. v. Miami-Dade Cnty. , 899 F.3d 908, 921 (11th Cir. 2018). The Stores do not contend they are part of a suspect class. Nor could they. Talleywhacker, Inc. v. Cooper , 465 F. Supp. 3d 523, 537 (E.D.N.C. 2020). Likewise, nobody argues Count 1 seeks to vindicate fundamental rights. Such an assertion would fall short anyway. Id. So Order 7 must pass the rational basis test. See Sandy Springs , 965 F.3d at 1275.

"Under rational basis review, a law must be rationally related to a legitimate governmental interest and it ‘must be upheld against equal protection challenge if there is any reasonably conceivable state of facts that could provide a rational basis for the classification’ between persons." Jones v. Governor of Fla. , 950 F.3d 795, 809 (11th Cir. 2020) (quoting F.C.C. v. Beach Commc'ns, Inc. , 508 U.S. 307, 313, 113 S.Ct. 2096, 124 L.Ed.2d 211 (1993) ). Federal courts do not overturn state legislative action "unless the varying treatment of different groups or persons is so unrelated to the achievement of any combination of legitimate purposes that we can only conclude that the legislature's actions were irrational." Id. (quoting Vance v. Bradley , 440 U.S. 93, 97, 99 S.Ct. 939, 59 L.Ed.2d 171 (1979) ). At bottom, courts ask "whether the legislature could have conceived of a rational basis for the classification it drew." Id.

While it might not be "toothless," the rational relation test is "highly deferential to government action." Id. (citation omitted). In fact, under this review, an ordinance strolls into court "bearing a strong presumption of validity." Beach Commc'n , 508 U.S. at 314, 113 S.Ct. 2096. So "those attacking the rationality of the legislative classification have the burden to negative every conceivable basis which might support it." Id. at 315, 113 S.Ct. 2096 (cleaned up). That's a tough task.

For its interest, the County points to Order 7. It seeks to protect "the public health, safety and welfare" of people in the County during the pandemic by requiring that masks be worn inside businesses "to slow the spread of COVID-19 where social distancing is not possible." (Doc. 67-8 at 2). This is a legitimate governmental interest. See S. Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom , ––– U.S. ––––, 140 S. Ct. 1613, 1613, 207 L.Ed.2d 154 (2020) (Roberts, C.J., concurring); Jacobson , 197 U.S. at 37-38, 25 S.Ct. 358.6

Having concluded the County had a legitimate interest, the Court turns to whether Order 7 is rationally related.

As a general matter, a mask mandate is rationally related to the County's legitimate governmental interest. The Stores don't challenge this conclusion much. And for good reason. It would be difficult to contend with a straight face that a mask requirement does not bear a rational relation to protecting people's health and preventing the spread of COVID-19. The Stores do not point to a single court holding otherwise. Cf. Stewart v. Justice , No. 3:20-0611, 502 F. Supp. 3d 1057, 1065, (S.D.W.V. Nov. 24, 2020) (holding a statewide COVID-19 mask mandate had "a rational basis" and "a real and substantial relation to this public health crisis"). Some may disagree with the public health efficacy of mask orders. But federal courts do not sit in a policy-checking capacity to second guess the wisdom of state legislative acts. Beach Commc'ns , 508 U.S. at 313, 113 S.Ct. 2096 (clarifying "equal protection is not a license for courts to judge the wisdom, fairness, or logic of legislative choices"). So the mask mandate itself bares a rational relation to the County's interest.

With that decided, the inquiry narrows onto the crux of the Stores’ theory—Order 7's classification between businesses in incorporated and unincorporated parts of the County is irrational. Best the Court can tell, the Stores contend Order 7 is irrational because any mask mandate applying on less than a Countywide basis could not effectively accomplish its goal (i.e., protecting people within the County from COVID-19). So the Stores say imposing Order 7 only on unincorporated areas treats them worse for an irrational reason. What's more, they argue the data and reasons given for Order 7 contemplated the entire County, not just unincorporated parts.

The Stores’ position fails for a host of reasons.

To start, the County contends it sought to protect public health through the least restrictive means. In doing so, it adopted Order 7, which demanded masks in unincorporated areas, allowing incorporated regions to opt in. The County says part of the reason was specifically to protect the health of people in unincorporated areas. The Stores call this "sleight of hand" and spill much ink arguing over how Order 7 contemplated, and the Commissioners knew, COVID-19 affects the entire County, not just unincorporated parts. Put simply, however, the Stores misunderstand the basics of rational basis review. The "actual motivations of the enacting governmental body are entirely irrelevant." Haves v. City of Miami , 52 F.3d 918, 921 (11th Cir. 1995) ; Beach Commc'ns , 508 U.S. at 315, 113 S.Ct. 2096. What's more, governmental decisionmakers need not "articulate any reason for their actions." Haves , 52 F.3d at 921. Instead, the burden is on the Stores to negate "every conceivable basis" supporting Order 7. Beach Commc'ns , 508 U.S. at 315, 113 S.Ct. 2096. So Order 7 "is not subject to courtroom fact-finding and may be based on rational speculation unsupported by evidence or empirical data." Id. In other words, the Court cannot simply disregard County's offered explanation for protecting the health of people in unincorporated areas like the Stores demand. And the Court must recognize how Order 7 is rationally related to protecting the health of people in unincorporated parts of the County.

Likewise, the Stores apparent argument that Order 7 cannot be rational because it's less effective than if applied Countywide...

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