TAMPA — A five-year legal battle between the county, two firefighters and their union is over, with a federal jury on Monday awarding the men $189,000 for their claims of workplace retaliation.
It's not a huge award as civil trials go, but it could be a severe financial burden for the union. It was ordered to pay $166,000 in damages, the bulk of the award.
The Pasco County Professional Firefighters, which formed in 2008, annually collects $68,000 in dues. It also collects dues for national and regional firefighter associations. The union has roughly $37,000 in yearly expenses, and it also has a $90,000 legal debt, much of which stems from the retaliation trial.
Though he is not involved in addressing the union's financial woes, county fire Chief Anthony Lopinto said he will have to work to prevent the trial from causing discord among his employees.
"We need to sit down and have some dialogue on how we can make harmony in the ranks," he said. The county's portion of the verdict includes $23,000 in damages, and it has already spent more than $165,000 in legal fees on the case.
The case began in 2007 when firefighter/EMT Anthony Booth, who is Hispanic, filed a discrimination charge against fire Capt. Mark Bodden. Driver/engineer Jerry Brown served as a witness for that charge and later filed his own complaint. Brown, whose wife is Jewish, said Bodden made several anti-Semitic remarks.
After an investigation, the county disciplined Bodden, including making him attend anger management and diversity classes. He also worked for four months under the direct supervision of another captain and could not work overtime during that period. He was also moved to a station where he would not work with Booth or Brown.
In a pretrial ruling, U.S. District Judge James Moody set aside the discrimination charges. Instead, the weeklong trial focused on a separate question: Did the county and union retaliate against the two firefighters for filing the original complaints?
The jury of six men and two women unanimously agreed that both entities did. Specifically, the jury ruled that the union should not have published an April 2008 memo that included the firefighters' names and called their complaints "frivolous." The memo was sent to all rank-and-file employees and posted at station bulletin boards. The county was penalized for an August 2011 order for the men to undergo psychological tests to keep their jobs.
The union memo said the discrimination complaints had "no grounds for support." But because the union still had to defend the charges, the legal bill could get costly. If the cost got too high, the memo said, the union might have to assess additional fees.
"The membership had a right to know who was involved and who was not involved," said Ralph Grant, president of the Pasco firefighters union. "They also had a right to know that it was potentially going to cost a lot of money to defend."
During testimony, an attorney for the two firefighters asked if Grant thought about what might happen to Booth and Brown after the memo was sent out. "I wasn't worried about that," Grant said.
Most of the union's damages were for "emotional pain and mental anguish." A small portion was awarded as punitive damages.
The psychological tests were prompted by affidavits the men gave in July to support their original retaliation claims. Part of Booth's affidavit reads, "I'm uncomfortable depending on co-workers who I cannot trust to save my life if I were trapped in a burning building or there was a collapsed roof."
In testimony, Lopinto vigorously defended recommending the tests. "It's ludicrous to think that would happen," he said. "The whole affidavit was based on them coming to work paranoid every day.
"I don't think it's unreasonable to have medical personnel tell me they're okay."
The men argued that after their original complaints became public, they were treated as "social pariahs." They said they were shunned when they tried to swap shifts and denied overtime.
The jury also heard emotional testimony from the firefighters' wives. Lindsay Booth, who has been married to Anthony Booth for more than three years, said the couple has been ignored at most employee functions and that her husband is much more stressed than in the past.
"He used to be a very fun, outgoing, playful person," she testified. "Now he is more distant at times, more serious and withdrawn. … It's the unhappiest I've ever seen him."
Tracey Jaensch, an outside attorney hired by the county, noted that Booth actually makes more money since the complaint was filed because he received paramedic training. Also, she said, it was individual firefighters who declined to swap shifts with Booth, a practice not regulated by the county.
Lisa Brown, Jerry Brown's wife of 19 years, described how their life changed after the union memo was published.
"He was just devastated," she said. "People were coming up to him and saying, 'You're just money hungry' or 'I can't afford to have my union dues go up.' "
Jaensch noted that Brown was moved to a new station that is closer to his home and his son's school.
"These men have not been punished in any way by the county," Jaensch said.
Jaensch argued on Monday that Moody should set aside the jury's verdict regarding the tests. A union lawyer made a similar argument for its portion of the verdict. The judge has not yet ruled on either request.
Lee Logan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6236.