A Florida appeals court has just overturned a state agency’s attempt to avoid responsibility for illegal discrimination, a critical ruling that forces the agency to face further court proceedings for its misconduct. I never doubted that the court would rule in my client’s favor, but the news of victory is still a great start to the year.
I argued the appeal before the panel of judges, located in Florida’s state capital, this past fall. A portion of that appears below. Successful argument at the appellate level requires a more relaxed, conversational style. There is no jury. The decision makers at this level are a panel of judges, who must decide if the original trial judge applied the law incorrectly. So the environment in this kind of courtroom is more intellectual, and the emotionally-charged style of argument normally made to a jury has no place here. You might not recognize me here if you’ve seen me arguing to a jury. It’s not “anything goes” in a jury trial, but it’s close.
It took months to learn the court’s ruling because appeals courts are slow to issue decisions. Their rulings are permanently published in the books you typically see in a law library and those rulings have widespread impact. Other judges and lawyers will use the published decisions as a guide to the current status of the law in Florida. So these judges typically engage in deep, time-consuming research and analysis before releasing their rulings.
This lawsuit involves a claim by my client, a former employee, that she was severely punished after she spoke out about wrongdoing. The agency’s payback included a lengthy suspension, a terrible evaluation and, eventually, her outright firing.
Last year the Florida Department of Health (FDOH) persuaded a trial judge to dismiss the case by blaming our client, a former FDOH employee, for mistakes made by two government agencies that processed her discrimination paperwork before the lawsuit was filed in court. In Florida, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the state Florida Commission on Human Relations (FCHR) are legally required to prepare paperwork needed to allows victims of job discrimination to later file claims in court. Here, both agencies dropped the ball, and neither accepted responsibility for their errors. FDOH made things worse by falsely blaming its former employee for mistakes by the EEOC and FCHR. The original judge agreed, unfortunately, and dismissed our lawsuit. This tactic by FDOH reinforces what I’ve said for years, which is that while employers preach genuine concern about discrimination, they will do nearly anything to avoid responsibility. That includes blaming the employee for mistakes even where it is crystal clear the employee was not responsible.
The appeals court rejected FDOH”s arguments, saying the errors could not be held against the former employee. It thus ordered the discrimination case against FDOH to move forward. With that, the case file is on its way back to the original trial judge, and we’ll pick up where we left off.
I never doubted that we would win on appeal. Sometimes it’s a matter of knowing that the fight is worth it, no matter how long it takes and no matter how much it costs.