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Court reinstates jury’s verdict in Pasco firefighters’ case

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals has reinstated a jury’s verdict that Pasco County illegally retaliated against two firefighters who had filed discrimination complaints against their supervisor.

In an opinion issued Thursday, the court reversed a decision by U.S. District Judge James Moody to set aside the verdict against the county. The three-judge panel also upheld the original verdict against the local firefighters’ union, ordering the union to pay firefighters Anthony Booth and Jerry Brown $83,000 each, plus interest.

Attorney Cynthia Sass said her clients were thrilled with the verdict. “They feel like they’ve been vindicated,” she said.

The Tampa jury, which heard the case in 2012, cleared the county of wrongdoing on all but one count, and ordered the county to pay Booth $10,500 and Brown $12,500 for back pay and emotional distress.

The case originally arose from complaints both men filed in 2007 against their former supervisor, Capt. Mark Bodden, for racial and religious discrimination.

Moody dismissed the discrimination charges but instructed the jury to consider whether the actions Pasco County Fire Rescue and the union took after Booth and Brown filed the lawsuit would prevent a reasonable person from making similar complaints.

The case hinged on a “legal update” memo posted on a union bulletin board, which named Booth and Brown and warned members that union dues would likely increase as a result of the “frivolous” lawsuit.

The jury found that Pasco County retaliated against the firefighters in 2011 when department officials placed the men on unpaid leave and ordered them to submit to psychological exams under threat of termination. Both were cleared by the department to return to duty.

The court said Moody overstepped his role when he set aside the verdict against the county for lack of evidence. “Credibility determinations, the weighing of evidence, and the drawing of legitimate inferences from facts are jury functions, not those of the judge,” they wrote in the 38-page opinion.

Pasco County paid $270,000 in outside legal fees on the case — plus another $52,410 for the appeal. The county and union could be liable for Booth’s and Brown’s legal fees, as well.

Sass has filed a motion seeking more than $600,000 in fees for the case, which she said was extremely complex and time-consuming. “This was a hard-fought case that spanned two years of heated litigation,” she wrote in her motion.

Booth and Brown offered to settle the case in 2011 for $20,000 each, plus $70,000 in legal fees on the condition that each would be promoted at the next available opening within the department. Personnel Director Barbara De Simone rejected the offer without presenting it to county commissioners or notifying the county attorney’s office. She told the Tribune she thought Sass’ legal fees were excessive.

“And there is no way I was going to promote employees who did not follow procedures,” De Simone said at the time.

Both men still work for Pasco Fire Rescue.

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