Legal Report, February 2020

General Counsel, Keith Davis

1. Quintero v. Diaz, 2020 Fla. App. LEXIS 17 (Fla. 3d 2020). Termination, absolute immunity.
Luis Quintero (“Quintero”) served as the Director of Parks and Recreation for the City of Sweetwater (“City”).  The City’s Mayor terminated Quintero on June 2, 2014. The Mayor’s termination letter stated, among other things, that Quintero had exhibited “poor judgment” and had been “incompetent, negligent and inefficient in the performance of [his] duties.” The termination letter was included as part of Quintero’s personnel file with the City, which is a public record. Based on the contents of the termination letter, Quintero sued the Mayor for defamation per se and argued that the Mayor was not entitled to absolute immunity because § 768.28(9)(a), F.S., had abrogated the common law immunity afforded to public officials in defamation per se claims. The Mayor claimed that he was entitled to absolute immunity and that § 768.28(9)(a), F.S., was inapplicable in this case. The trial court entered judgment in favor of the Mayor’s motion for summary judgment, finding that he was entitled to absolute immunity because he was acting in his official capacity and, § 768.28(9)(a), F.S., did not abrogate the common law privilege. The issue presented on appeal was whether absolute immunity is provided to public officials who make statements within the scope of their duties when those statements are alleged to be false, malicious, or badly motivated. The Third District Court of Appeals (“DCA”) affirmed the trial court’s judgment in favor of the Mayor. According to the Third DCA, Quintero’s argument overlooked the well-settled fact that absolute immunity is a separate and distinct concept from sovereign immunity, which is applicable under § 768.28(9)(a) , F.S. Moreover, the controlling factor in deciding whether a public employee is absolutely immune from actions for defamation is whether the communication was within the scope of the officer’s duties. The parties had stipulated that the Mayor was acting in his official capacity as the City’s Mayor and within the scope of his duties when he issued the termination letter. Thus, the Mayor enjoys absolute immunity from statements contained in the termination letter as they are shielded by privilege from suit.

After the Third DCA’s decision, public officials acting in their official capacities will continue to enjoy absolute immunity from all statements made within the scope of their duties, however false or malicious or badly motivated those statements may be.



2.  Quasha v. City of Palm Beach Gardens, Case No. 19-80825-CIV-MIDDLEBROOKS (S.D. Fla. 2019). ADA compliance, reasonable accommodations: UPDATE
This case was first reported in November 2019 regarding a lawsuit filed by a mother on behalf of her son over an alleged peanut allergy and her request for reasonable accommodation from the City of Palm Beach Gardens (“City”) pertaining to its recreation fields. As was reported in November, the judge in this case denied the City’s motion to dismiss, finding sufficiency support to conclude that the boy’s peanut allergy was significant enough to warrant protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).

After resolving their discovery dispute, on January 8, 2020, Plaintiff requested a voluntary dismissal of the action without prejudice. On January 13, 2020, the City filed a motion for summary judgment, this time arguing the blood tests administered by a doctor, including a complete peanut panel, demonstrated the absence of a peanut allergy (qualifying disability) to a high level of medical probability. The Plaintiff received a voluntary dismissal by the district court on January 15, 2020. In a letter to Judge Middlebrooks, Plaintiff indicated that based on two allergists and a pediatrician’s written medical records, Plaintiff had been instructed to avoid giving her son peanuts due to an allergic reaction he had to cashews. The only conclusive test available was having the Plaintiff’s son ingest peanuts in the presence of a doctor and administer an Epi pen but the Plaintiff decided against it.

Unfortunately, due to the voluntary dismissal of this case, the court will not further its precedent regarding the requirements for reasonable accommodation by a municipality for a qualifying disability under the ADA.