Legal Report, August 2018

General Counsel, Jennifer G. Ashton
Davis & Ashton, P.A.

1.         Weeks v. Town of Palm Beach, 2018 Fla. App. LEXIS 10381, 43 Fla. L. Weekly D 1675, 2018 WL 3569385 (Fla. 4th DCA 2018). Absolute immunity; defamation.
Weeks was a former employee of the Town of Palm Beach’s Fire and Rescue Department.  Weeks’ behavior brought about several internal investigations throughout 2011 and 2012, which resulted in his demotion and ultimate termination.  In December 2015, Weeks sued the Town and numerous Town employees and consultants individually for defamation, among other things.  Weeks basically sued anyone that was involved in the investigations including, but not limited to, the Town Manager, the HR Director, the attorney conducting the investigation, and employee witnesses.  Weeks alleged that during the investigations into his conduct, the individual defendants made false and defamatory statements about him in order to get him fired.  The Town and the individual defendants filed joint motions to dismiss and for summary judgment.  The trial court found that the individual defendants were acting within the scope of their duties and under direction of their superiors, and therefore, the statements they made during the investigations were protected by an absolute privilege.  Consequently, the trial court granted the motion for summary judgment against Weeks.

On appeal, the Fourth District Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s ruling.  The Court held that public officials are absolutely immune from claims for defamation where their allegedly defamatory statements are made within the scope of their duties.  The Court held that the statements made by the individual defendants during the course of the investigations were made during the scope of their official duties and therefore, were absolutely immune from defamation claims no matter how false, malicious or badly motivated they were.  Additionally, the Court held that the statute of limitations for a defamation suit is two years.  The case record demonstrated that Weeks knew of the alleged defamatory statements around December 13, 2012, but did not file his claim until December 9, 2015, almost three years later.  The claim, therefore, was time barred.

2.         Roberts v. Miami-Dade County, 2018 Fla. App. LEXIS 9034, 43 Fla. L. Weekly D 1454, 2018 WL 3131132, (Fla. 3rd DCA 2018). Collective bargaining agreements; failure to exhaust administrative remedies.
Roberts was a Miami-Dade County (“County”) police officer and member of the law enforcement bargaining unit represented by the Dade County Police Benevolent Association (“PBA”). The PBA has a collective bargaining agreement (“CBA”) with the County that governs the terms and conditions of employment of law enforcement personnel, including Roberts. Roberts was arrested and indicted on federal charges in 2008, while employed by the County. He was notified of his dismissal via letter, signed by the County Police Director, advising him that he was dismissed from the Department effective September 26, 2008. The letter further advised Roberts that he had 14 days from receipt of the letter to request (in writing) an appeal under § 2-47 of the Miami-Dade County Code. The County received Roberts’ letter of appeal on October 10, 2008 but denied his request for appeal because it was untimely.  Roberts did not file a subsequent grievance as required by the CBA.

On October 27, 2009, a judgment of acquittal was issued by the federal court in the criminal case in which Roberts was a defendant. With no grievance filed, on March 19, 2010, Roberts’ attorney wrote to the County requesting temporary reinstatement and backpay for Roberts based on his acquittal.  Still with no grievance filed, in 2011, Roberts filed a complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief in state court seeking compliance with the temporary reinstatement provision of § 2-47 of the County Code. Throughout 2013-2014, Roberts still did not file a grievance under the CBA.  The trial court subsequently found in favor of the County on all counts because Roberts had not filed a grievance and therefore, had failed to exhaust his administrative remedies.

On appeal, the Third District Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s decision.  The CBA specifically stated that if the County failed to process Robert’s appeal, then Robert’s was required to file a grievance before going to court.  The terms of the CBA must be followed.  Since Robert’s did not follow those terms, he failed to exhaust his administrative remedies and his court case could not proceed.