Lawsuit claims Destin is prohibiting ‘erotic speech’

Matt Algarin

The city of Destin is once again facing a First Amendment lawsuit filed by developers hoping to open the city’s first strip club.

Atlanta area-based developers behind The Runway filed a lawsuit Oct. 8 in federal court against the city of Destin and City Manager Maryann Ustick.

Destin attorney Dana Matthews, who is representing the gentleman’s club, sent the legal filing to The Log. In the pages, Trident Operations, LLC and Red Brick Construction, LLC, tell the court they are seeking declaratory relief, injunctive relief and damages from the Northern District of Florida federal court.

 The litigation seeks "a judgment declaring certain ordinances and practices of the city of Destin, Florida to be unconstitutional under the First and Fourteenth Amendments" of the United States Constitution. Essentially, the complaint states that the city of Destin has violated the civil rights of the applicants by not issuing them a license to operate a sexually oriented business or issuing a development order for the proposed club called The Runway that would be located along Airport Road.


Thumbing through the more than 100 pages, there are no shortage of accusations against Ustick and the city.

"For many years, the city has manipulated its SOB (sexually oriented business) ordinances, not out of fear of any adverse secondary effects, but out of a desire to frustrate and dissuade any potential adult businesses from opening and operating in Destin," the lawsuit states. "The city has gone to enormous lengths to censor and prohibit erotic speech within the community."

City officials had no immediate comment as they coordinated a response.

The lawsuit also alleges that the city, its Land Use Attorney Scott Shirley and the anti-strip club group Citizens for a Greater Destin have "conspired together" to deny the plaintiffs their civil rights. More specifically, the complaint adds that an attorney representing the citizens group was the first to suggest that the city ask for corporate documents relating to ownership and business records.

For the past few months, the city's legal team had asked the applicants to provide information about "influential interest" in Trident Operations, more specifically how the applicants gained interest from the late Terry Stephenson, who was murdered outside of his Atlanta Strip Club Pin-Ups in 2010.

According to the documents, Stephenson was not "a party" to the First Amendment lawsuit filed against the city in 2008, and the subsequent settlement agreement. Stephenson merely signed the letter as a manager of Trident Operations, the letter said.

Addressing the "additional information" requested by the city, the suit states that the information is not actually needed to process the appropriate applications, and has not been required by other developers, but is "intended to thwart" the plaintiffs.

"The city is playing a malevolent shell game specifically intended to deprive plaintiff of their constitutional rights."

The documents also address an Oct. 4 letter from Ustick which essentially rejected the development and sexually oriented business applications until a variety of issues were resolved "to the satisfaction" of the city manager's office.

The strip club's legal team maintains that Ustick's letter does not identify any technical or substantive deficiencies in Trident's application or any failures to comply with the city's sexually oriented business ordinance. The complaint cites the city's "imagined issues" concerning Trident's members as the basis for denial.

"The city manager's denial of Trident's application for an SOB license is arbitrary and capricious and was made in the city manager's sole and unfettered discretion, without any reference to any standards or legal authority," the complaint states.

It's also noted that on or about Sept. 27, city staff reported that the development application met the technical requirements under the city's code, and the city refused to issue a development orders or a sexually oriented business license pending an investigation by Shirley.


The suit states that the plaintiffs have suffered damages as a direct result of the city's actions, and their civil rights violated. It alleges that there are also monetary loses, such as lost profits, lost good will, unrecovered carrying costs (mortgage payments, taxes, interest on loans, insurance), and damages to the plaintiff's business as a result of the delay in opening. Originally, the club had hoped to open its doors by spring break 2013.

The remedy

The applicants are seeking eight remedies through the court, which include a judgment declaring that the city has applied its development review process and SOB ordinance against the applicants in an unconstitutional manner in violation of the First Amendment; the court issues a permanent injunction that would keep the city from requiring disclosure of ownership information; issue a mandatory injunction requiring the city to immediately comply with "obligations" under the settlement agreement; an award for the applicants costs and legal fees; and compensation for lost revenue and business opportunities.

What's next

Both the city of Destin and representatives from The Runway have now filed legal documents asking for a judge's intervention in this matter.


The Citizens for a Greater Destin, which was formed to block the city’s first strip club, will hold a public meetings at 7 p.m. Oct. 17 at Immanuel Anglican Church.