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Fish House v. City of Pensacola in Final Stages?

Photo via Instagram//user @beautifulpensacola

More than two years after the initial filing, a lawsuit against the City of Pensacola involving the land on which the Fish House Restaurant sits may be close to resolution.

Circuit Judge Scott Duncan held a six-hour hearing on the case in January. Fish House owner Collier Merrill says their argument then was the same as it’s been all along, concerning the lease for the city-owned property call Pitt Slip, on which The Fish House and Atlas Oyster House sit.

“Our lease says what it says; if the city wants to reinterpret the lease, that’s just not the way to do business,” said Merrill. “We’re trying to get that on record once and for all, quit arguing with the city and let the judge decide that.”

It appears that Judge Duncan has two options: rule for the plaintiffs and issue a summary judgment, or send the case to a jury trial.

The city contends that the lease had expired in June, 2013. In November of that year the city threatened eviction if the disputed lease payments totaling $5 million were not forwarded. Merrill says the controversy had a major impact on the Fish House going into that year’s holiday season.

“What kind of weddings we lost, what kind of parties we lost, it’s hard to say, and reputation on top of that,” said Merrill. “It’s hard to put a dollar sign on it, but it certainly was not the kind of publicity we looked for.”

The city’s $5 million claim was based on a percentage of sales, plus interest, since the opening of the Fish House in 1998 and Atlas Oyster House in 2004. That’s calculated to be roughly one year’s worth of revenues, leading Merrill to say at the time, that the city was trying to move the goalposts.

The city eventually rescinded its claim to back royalties and interest, and Mayor Ashton Hayward then sent a mixed signal through a prepared statement.

“The city’s position has not changed, and most definitely the city is not backing down,” said Hayward, who added that the lease notice that went out to Great Southern Restaurant Group was only one of a number of similar notices in a mass mailing.

“Other people got letters concerning leases, that lease property from the city a month ago,” Hayward said in January, 2014.

Attorney Bruce Partington filed the lawsuit on behalf of Merrill and Merrill’s business partner Ray Russenberger, for damages regarding the city’s attempt to renegotiate their lease. Partington said they would seek relief in two areas.

“We’re basically asking the court to confirm the manner in which the parties have been operating for more than 13 years,” Partington said. “And then each of the complaints also has claims for damages based on the improper declaration of default by the city and the effect that that’s had on the business operations of each of the parties.”

If and when the lease issue is resolved, Fish House owner Collier Merrill says that’s likely not the end of litigation against the City of Pensacola.

“The first thing we’re going to do is hopefully recoup attorneys’ fees, which are hundreds of thousands of dollars at this point,” said Merrill. “Then we got to figure out where we’re going to go from there.”