A federal judge accused Hillsborough County on Monday of continuing to "bury its head in the proverbial sand" by refusing to accept responsibility for its role in the sexual discrimination verdict against Commissioner Kevin White.
In a sharply worded order, U.S. District Judge Richard Lazzara said the lawsuit brought by former aide Alyssa Ogden revealed broad "gaps" in how the county protects many of its workers from discrimination.
He said testimony during last month's trial showed that the county offers no meaningful way for employees who are not civil service workers to challenge a wrongful firing.
"Instead, as this case tragically revealed, at taxpayers' expense, these employees serve at the pleasure of their appointing official," he wrote, "and are wholly unprotected from termination based on the unfettered whim and caprice of that official."
The order came in response to a post-trial argument by the county that it should not be held liable, which Lazzara dismissed as "wholly without merit."
Ogden said she was fired in 2007 after seven months on the job for rebuffing repeated passes made by White. A federal civil jury dismissed his defense - that Ogden was fired due to documented job performance failure - and awarded her $75,000 in damages.
Lazzara's order served as a response to White's fellow commissioners, who have been looking for ways to avoid paying the damage award and tens of thousands more in attorney's fees due to Ogden's lawyer. They have argued that county taxpayers shouldn't be on the hook for White's transgressions.
Commissioners have offered to settle the case by paying Ogden and her attorney, Ron Fraley, a total of $100,000, less than half of the $216,000 in fees and costs he is seeking. The offer would essentially pay Fraley $10,000 to $15,000, after subtracting expenses, for nearly 18 months of work on the case, after damages to Ogden are subtracted.
"I hope everyone reviews it," Fraley said of the judge's order. "The order speaks for itself."
Lazzara homes in on arguments made by the county during the trial.
An attorney hired by the county repeatedly pointed out that Ogden never raised harassment complaints until after she was fired in November 2007. The attorney, Claire Saady, also noted more than once that the county displayed posters and offered training for employees on how to report discriminatory behavior.
Ogden did file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission immediately after she was fired. Saady wrote the county response, saying the EEOC had no say.
As an aide hired directly by White, Ogden was not protected by the county's Civil Service Act, which offers a grievance process for employees who claim they are being punished unfairly. The same is true for many of the county's managers or workers with specialized job duties.
In response to Ogden's EEOC complaint, Saady said White had "plenary," or absolute power over her hiring and firing.
"Complainant (Ogden) was accountable only to Commissioner White," she wrote. "White exercised ultimate control over Complainant's position, (and) Complainant was directly accountable to Commissioner White."
To suggest during the trial that Ogden had a remedy had she complained sooner was "ironically troubling," Lazzara wrote.
"Don't you see the irony?" he asked Saady during a bench conference out of earshot of jurors during the trial, which is recounted in the order. "You're saying that she had all this information available to her, so she uses it and then you say, 'It's no good to you. ... I find that rather troubling."
An attempt to reach Saady late Monday was not successful. County Attorney Renee Lee did not return a call for comment.
The lone juror reached after the trial said Lazzara's point wasn't missed by the civil panel that weighed the case. John Shiver, of Davenport, one of two men on the eight-person panel, said jurors awarded damages to Ogden largely to send a message to the county about how it hires and fires its workers.
Lazzara said it was not his place to tell commissioners how to fix what he called a "glaring gap" in employment practices.
"That function is vested exclusively with the legislative branch of government," he wrote, referring to the county commission. "Hence, it is up to that branch of government to fill this gap."
Bill Varian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3387.