Jacksonville veteran’s battle with owners’ association for flag rights is in court
Nine years after Larry Murphree began his battle for the right to plant an American flag in a pot outside his apartment, he had to make the same argument before a trial judge.
Murphree, an Air Force veteran, first placed a 12-inch by 17-inch flag in a flowerpot near his front door in defiance of homeowners association rules in 2011.
He started incurring a fine of $100 a day, which grew to $1,000. He filed a federal lawsuit in 2012, then signed a settlement agreement with the homeowners association that waived his fines and awarded him $4,000 in legal fees. In exchange, he agreed not to disparage the association and to fly the flag in accordance with the association’s “reasonable rules and regulations”.
Almost immediately, a condominium association, which is a separate entity but employs the same property managers to oversee the same properties, adopted a new “flowerpot rule” that prohibited putting anything other than plants, soil or water in flower pots, including flags. . Murphree was again fined $100 a day and the association placed a lein on her house.
He filed another federal lawsuit, based on the 2005 federal Freedom to Display the American Flag Act, which prohibited associations from banning the display of stars and stripes. However, a federal judge dismissed Murphree’s federal lawsuit in 2014, saying the law did not provide the ability to sue to enforce the law. This judge told Murphree that her claims would be “better dealt with in state courts.”
Throughout, Murphree gave interviews to outlets, such as The Times-Union, criticizing the association for refusing to let him put a flag in a flowerpot.
Eventually, the homeowners association filed a lawsuit in 2014 against Murphree, claiming he violated the non-disparagement agreement. He countersued, demanding $1 million in damages.
On Monday, Murphree and the homeowners association each presented their cases to Circuit Judge Robert M. Dees, who will not make a decision on the suit and countersuit for at least a month, while the two sides will present their final arguments in writing.
Murphree’s civil lawsuit hinges on a few questions:
After its initial rules, could the association change its rules to ban the flag in a flowerpot again?
And was this settlement binding on Sweetwater’s other legal entities, including the condo association?
Murphree’s attorney, Gust Sarris, has repeatedly argued that even though the new rule had a different name and was created by a different entity, it should be preempted by the settlement. “It’s the same flag. It’s the same flowerpot. It’s the same filth. It’s the same place. I would call this a distinction without difference.
However, Nick Martino, attorney for the homeowners association, said nothing in the regulations would have prohibited the association from preventing Murphree from putting a flag in a flowerpot.
Martino pointed out that Murphree knew he was moving into a restricted deed community with limitations placed on his landlords.
Murphree said when he moved in, no one had any flags waving over the community. Now, he says, lots of people fly flags on poles; however, he said he didn’t want to deal with a larger flag tied to a pole that he would have to bring at night. Instead, he wanted a smaller flag in his flowerpot, as well as several in a wreath on his door.
Martino asked Murphree about the remarks he made, specifically a quote he gave to Fox News. “I think if anyone on this [association] council told me that they served in the army, I would have to ask them on which side.
Martino repeatedly objected to questions from Murphree’s attorneys, noting the distinctions between the homeowners association that sued Murphree and the condo association that made the flowerpot rule.
Martino asked property manager Katie Hollis about the death threats she and her staff have received due to Murphree’s public comments. But Murphree’s attorney, Gust Sarris, also asked the property manager if she could tell whether those threats were directed at the homeowners association or the condo association. She said she couldn’t.
Hollis expressed frustration that the community has many flags flying but outsiders perceive it as unpatriotic. “It was bad to see this sweet, amazing community that supports the flag being abandoned.”
She described “being in a situation where my staff are afraid to come to work because of the number of death threats we have received”.
Dees asked both parties to prepare closing arguments in writing and that they both draft proposed orders for him.
Murphree now lives in Cascades at the World Golf Village, and he said he had no problem planting flags in flowerpots there.