Tuesday, January 16, 2018
News Roundup

Ex-employee sues Hillsborough Property Appraiser Rob Turner, claiming wrongful firing

TAMPA — The former human resources director who accused Hillsborough County Property Appraiser Rob Turner of sending her pornographic emails filed a wrongful termination lawsuit in federal court Tuesday.

Carolyn Filippone says she was fired for filing a sexual discrimination complaint against Turner with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She is seeking back and future pay, unspecified damages and attorneys' fees — costs that likely will run in the hundreds of thousands of dollars if she prevails.

The lawsuit makes no mention of the allegations Filippone raised in her EEOC complaint: That Turner sent her dozens of pornographic emails, made other spoken sexual advances, then banished her to a satellite office shortly after his wife learned of their correspondence.

Those details are no longer particularly relevant, said Chris Jayson, one of Filippone's attorneys. The lawsuit is ultimately a wrongful termination case claiming Turner fired his client for filing a workplace complaint, which she had every right to do, he said.

"This suit is straightforward," Jayson said. "She has a legal right to try to protect herself under the EEOC and she was punished for it. You just can't do that."

Filippone, 49, had worked for Turner since shortly after he was first elected in 1996. Having worked previously with Turner at NationsBank, she arrived as a part-time computer trainer and rose to the head of human resources, training and community relations, making nearly $100,000 a year.

In her complaint, Filippone says she and Turner dated for a period after she was hired, which Turner has confirmed, though their time frames differ.

She filed her EEOC complaint in March 2010, claiming Turner sexually discriminated against her by shipping her to a satellite office in Brandon for refusing his sexual advances. As part of her complaint, she provided copies of dozens of pornographic emails she said she received from Turner as evidence of his advances.

The complaint was dismissed in April of this year, without explanation, clearing the way for the lawsuit.

Turner had not seen the lawsuit and declined to comment through his office's attorney. In a recorded May interview with the Tampa Bay Times, Turner admitted sending pornographic emails to Filippone. But he said they were part of a mutual and consensual exchange that took place during nonwork hours using personal equipment.

He then fired Filippone as the Times was preparing its story for publication, and a news media onslaught ensued. Turner has said he fired Filippone for making false claims about him to the EEOC.

He also has said her complaint contained several inaccuracies. Filippone was not banished, but relocated with other employees who work with sensitive records and equipment that would be at risk downtown if a hurricane strikes, Turner has said. She also was not cut off from other employees, as she claimed, as she regularly visited the downtown office and attended social events with co-workers, Turner has said.

He has described his dating relationship with Filippone and his email correspondence with her as "personal mistakes."

Revelations of those mistakes couldn't have come at a worse time for him politically. Turner, 60, immediately attracted two well-known opponents in his bid for a fifth term.

State Sen. Ronda Storms is challenging him in the Aug. 14 Republican primary. The winner faces former state Rep. Bob Henriquez and two candidates who are running without party affiliation, James DeMio and Rob Townsend.

He also is facing an electorate that has endured its share of highly publicized payouts to public employees connected to misbehavior on the job in recent years.

Most notably, taxpayers picked up the roughly half-million dollar legal tab of former Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin White, who a jury found sexually discriminated against a former aide.

Jayson said Filippone can claim up to $300,000 in damages as well as back pay from the time she was fired until the case goes to court, which could easily top $100,000.

She also is asking for her old job back.

"That may be hard to do because of the nature of the relationship," he said.

So, she may seek pay she will not receive in the future if she is unable to land another job at comparable pay, or as much as another two years of pay. And she is seeking payment for her attorneys' fees, which, if White is an example, could top $200,000. It's not clear if Turner will hire outside counsel, but, if so, the county likely would have to pick up those costs.

The county has an insurance policy against such claims, but it carries a $350,000 deductible and doesn't necessarily cover all the costs arising from such a lawsuit.

Tom Gonzalez, an employment lawyer not connected to this case who has worked on government-sector labor lawsuits, said Jayson's figures are reasonable estimates.

Bill Varian can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3387.

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