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Florida First DCA reverses trial's court's summary judgment for defense in whistleblower violation case involving alleged improper termination of county employee

On May 25, 2018, in Gainey v. Washington County, Florida, No. 1D16-2499, the Florida First DCA reversed a trial’s court’s summary judgment for the defendant county in a whistleblower violation case involving alleged improper termination of county employee. The plaintiff was a systems administrator employee whose position was eliminated during an ongoing dispute between the plaintiff and a county commissioner whom he claimed wanted to get him fired in part due to his relationship with two male commissioners on the five-member body. The trial court dismissed the plaintiff’s whistleblower lawsuit for failing to establish a causal connection between his dismissal and his whistleblower report and because the trial court determined that the commission’s action was supported by a legitimate, nonretaliatory reason, that being the county’s budgetary problems. The First DCA disagreed, concluding that there was sufficient evidence of a causal relationship because the plaintiff’s termination “occurred in reasonable temporal proximity to the time where evidence existed that the commissioners may have become aware of the whistleblower complaint.” This evidence presented a prima facie case, which could be rebutted by the county’s showing of a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for elimination of Gainey’s position. The county presented such a reason, budget concerns, shifting back to the plaintiff the burden of showing that the budget problems were “ pre-textual ”. The Court cited several facts that supported a conclusion that the budget concerns were pre-textual, including remarks made to a third party that the plaintiff was being forced to retire and the county’s denial of the plaintiff’s accrued annual and sick leave, at odds with past practice.