A federal jury this week ordered Pasco County and its local firefighters union to pay $189,000 in damages and back pay to two firefighters for civil rights violations. Even though Judge James Moody dismissed the firefighters' original complaints, the six-day trial centered on whether county officials and the International Association of Firefighters Local 4420 retaliated against Anthony Booth and Jerry Brown for engaging in protected activity.
The jury ordered the union on Monday to pay each man $75,000 in compensatory and $8,000 in punitive damages. Pasco County was ordered to pay Booth $10,500 and Brown $12,500 for back pay and emotional distress.
The county was cleared of all other charges.
Attorney Kendra Presswood said her clients were thrilled with the verdict. “They feel that the jury vindicated them,” she said. “They've just been through so much.”
The case originally arose from complaints both men filed in 2007 against their former supervisor, Capt. Mark Bodden, for racial and religious discrimination. Moody instructed the jury to consider whether the actions Pasco County Fire Rescue and the union took after Booth and Brown filed the lawsuit would prevent a reasonable person from making similar complaints.
The case hinged on a “legal update” memo posted on a union bulletin board, which named Booth and Brown and warned members that union dues would likely increase as a result of the “frivolous” lawsuit.
The jury found that Pasco County retaliated against the firefighters in August when department officials placed the men on unpaid leave and ordered them to submit to psychological exams under threat of termination. Both were cleared by the department to return to duty.
Attorneys for the county and the union asked the judge to set aside the jury's verdict and rule for the defense. Presswood said she expects the union and county to appeal.
“This probably won't be over for years,” she said.
Pasco County already has paid more than $165,000 in legal fees. The county and union could be liable for Booth's and Brown's legal fees, as well.
Booth and Brown offered to settle the case last spring for $20,000 each, plus $70,000 in legal fees on the condition that each would be promoted at the next available opening within the department. Personnel Director Barbara De Simone rejected the offer without presenting it to county commissioners.