Lee County commissioners agreed Tuesday to offer a nearly $500,000 settlement to the seven plaintiffs of a whistleblower lawsuit filed against the county in 2009.
The plaintiffs claim they were wrongly terminated from their maintenance positions at the county jail because they cooperated with an internal investigation into alleged misconduct in their department, a violation of the Florida Whistle-blower’s Act.
However, the county alleges the plaintiffs were fired because they created a hostile work environment by making racist and sexual comments about female and minority employees, including their supervisors.
A 20th Circuit Court judge later reinstated the workers’ jobs under the Whistle-blower’s Act. The plaintiffs are Karl Harsh, Anthony Cira, Thomas Felde, Edward Fergason, Leonard Luersen, James Raimbeault and Kenneth Sager.
Commissioner Frank Mann let out an audible “ay, ya, yay,” when the item came up on the morning’s agenda.
Interim Lee County Attorney Andrea Fraser recommended the county offer the plaintiffs a $473,630.95 settlement. Most of that is to cover about $300,000 in attorney’s fees, Fraser said.
“The whistleblower action ... pays back all compensation that they lost while they were out of work, but there would be no emotional damages paid out or any other type of damages,” Fraser said.
The proposed settlement does not include interest, which Fraser said the plaintiffs requested.
The discussion after Fraser’s presentation was short.
“I’ve got one question,” said County Commissioner Larry Kiker. “What happens if we don’t?”
“We go to trial,” Fraser said.
Kiker then asked Fraser to walk them through the risks.
“If any one of the plaintiffs are awarded any of the damages they’re after, the county would be liable for any attorney’s fees up to what they could prove,” Fraser said.
She said conceivably the fees could range from $600,000 to $1 million.
“It only takes one of them to win, and there are seven plaintiffs, currently,” she said.
John Manning was the lone commissioner of the four present to vote against settlement. Commissioner Tammy Hall was at a conference in Washington, D.C.
After the meeting, Manning, who was appointed to the commission in 2010, said he could not comment on pending litigation. He said he just had “great reluctance” voting for something that emerged when he was not a commissioner.
Kiker said he had no comment on the lawsuit itself but hoped the county had learned its lesson.
“It’s really unfortunate that we even had to make a decision on it, and I hope that we are putting disciplines in place to make sure that it doesn’t happen again,” Kiker said.
If the plaintiffs reject the settlement, the county would go to trial. Fraser said the county would continue to argue that the firings were legitimate because of the plaintiffs’ alleged behavior.
The U.S. Department of Justice filed a related but separate lawsuit on behalf of three Hispanic employees who alleged that they had to endure harassment — including racial and ethnic slurs — from the seven co-workers at the county jail.
That lawsuit is set to go into executive session later this month, Fraser said during the meeting.