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Woodford lawsuit against Hillsborough fights to stay alive

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Published Mar. 12, 2018

Lawyers squared off before a judge for the first time Monday in Stephanie Woodford's lawsuit against the Hillsborough County School District over a technical issue: Did the fired human resources chief exhaust other required  remedies before taking the district to court on Oct. 18?

The district says she didn't. By law, attorney Robert Boos said, Woodford should have filed a complaint first with the Florida Division of Administrative Hearings.

Not really, said Mark Herdman, Woodford's attorney. While the district does have a contract with "DOAH," as it is called, there is no known process in the district of filing such complaints; nor has anybody done so in at least the last 30 years. If such a system did exist, Herdman said, Woodford would know about it. After all, she was the chief of human resources.

Most of the time, if someone is fired in the school district, it is a teacher who can push for a hearing before the School Board. If the board upholds the teacher's firing, he or she will sometimes file a lawsuit.

Woodford's case was different, as she was a cabinet-level administrator. She was fired by Chief of Staff Alberto Vazquez, who left in December for a job in Hartford, Conn.

Circuit Judge Paul Huey said he will consider the lawyers' arguments before deciding whether to grant the district's request to dismiss the complaint. Woodford is not alleging wrongful firing. Instead, her suit is a whistleblower action that alleges she was dismissed because she refused to go along with acts of corruption. The district says her claims are distorted, inaccurate and deliberately sensational.

Woodford is also alleging Vazquez defamed in an explanation he gave the Tampa Bay Times for her dismissal. That count was not a subject of Monday's hearing. Woodford, who now has a job in the Pinellas County School District, did not attend.