Fla. county approves settlement in fire chief lawsuit

Katie Pohlman
Ocala Star-Banner, Fla.

MARION COUNTY, Fla. — The County Commission approved a proposed settlement agreement Tuesday in a two-year discrimination, then retaliation, lawsuit filed by a Marion County Fire Rescue employee against the county.

Marion County Fire Rescue Division Chief Shari Hall filed suit against the county in May 2016, claiming the county discriminated against her based on her gender when she was passed over in 2015 for the fire chief position, which was given to now-retired Paul Nevels.

After she filed complaints with the Florida Commission of Human Relations (FCHR) and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and eventually a lawsuit in civil court, Hall claims, the county retaliated against her in the form of poor performance reviews and by denying her a promotion to deputy fire chief.

A Marion County judge has ruled that neither discrimination nor retaliation occurred in Hall's case. The judge's decision on retaliation is currently in the appeal process.

The settlement agreement was part of the meeting's consent agenda, so there was no discussion about the item.

Terms of the settlement agreement include the county paying Hall $95,000, Hall taking an early retirement as soon as the agreement becomes effective, and Hall dropping any pending litigation and future claims against the county. Hall has filed a complaint with FCHR and the EEOC based on being passed over for the deputy chief position.

In a memorandum submitted as part of the County Commission's agenda for Tuesday's meeting, county attorney Matthew Minter wrote that because of Hall's senior position in the fire service, “the continuation of these disputes is inhibiting the efficient operation of” the fire service. He did not elaborate in what way.

Marion County still denies all liability as to the claims of discrimination and retaliation, according to the memorandum. It adds that while the county has prevailed in all claims so far, “all litigation carries an element of risk for both parties.”

The county will only be responsible for $50,000 of the settlement. The additional $45,000 will be reimbursed from the county's insurance agency. Settlement money will be taken out of the General Liability Insurance Fund, according to the memorandum.

With the county's approval, the proposed settlement is now placed in Hall's hands. She has 21 days to sign the agreement, then has another seven days to decide to revoke her signature.

If Hall does agree to the settlement, she and her attorney Edwin Green have 10 days after the effective date of the settlement to execute and deliver a completed voluntary dismissal of the lawsuit, appeal and any pending charges to the county. The county will then be responsible for filing the dismissal with the court system.

Hall's original discrimination suit claimed she was more qualified than Nevels for the chief position and scored higher in the first round of interviews, but that she was ultimately passed over by then-acting County Administrator Mounir Bouyounes because of her gender. Hall had more than 20 years of experience with Marion County Fire Rescue; before that, she worked for Ocala Fire Rescue. She holds several degrees in firefighting and EMS, is a state-certified paramedic and, at the time of the lawsuit, was pursuing studies in emergency medical management, according to the complaint.

Hall claims Nevels achieved a lower level of education than her, was not a licensed EMT and had spent much of his career outside Marion County Fire Rescue. She claimed he scored “much lower” in interview areas, including carrying out a leadership project, ideas on how to prepare the agency's budget and top priorities for fire rescue.

In early 2017, Hall amended her complaint to add the retaliation claim.

In that, she claims that “as a result of her opposition to Marion County's unlawful employment practice,” she was given poor performance reviews, was passed over for a promotion to deputy fire chief and more that is not listed. She claims these “intentional retaliatory acts” were “performed with malice and reckless indifference to Hall's protected civil rights,” according to the amended complaint.

Fifth Circuit Judge Lisa Herndon ruled in April 2017 that Hall failed to establish direct evidence of gender discrimination, according to Herndon's Final Summary Judgement. She added that, according to case law, “disparity in qualifications must be 'so apparent as virtually to jump off the page and slap you in the face,'” Herndon said Hall's suit did not fit the description.

“There is no evidence in the record that Mr. Bouyounes has exhibited bias towards females with respect to hiring decisions,” Herndon wrote. “To the contrary, Mr. Bouyounes has appointed females to two Assistant County Administrator positions and two department head positions.”

Hall and attorney Green appealed Herndon's decision, but it was upheld by the 5th District Court of Appeal in January of this year. The court did tell Herndon to revisit the case to rule on retaliation, which she seemed to have passed over in her Final Summary Judgement.

In April, Herndon granted Marion County's motion to dismiss the retaliation claim. The county claimed Hall failed to state a cause of action and exhaust all administrative remedies.

Hall has appealed Herndon's most recent decision, but initial briefs have not yet been filed, according to court records.

Contact Katie Pohlman at 867-4065, katie.pohlman@starbanner.com or @katie_pohlman.

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McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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