The firm’s client (“Housing Authority”) owned an apartment complex that served the affordable housing market in St. Petersburg, Pinellas County, Florida. The plaintiff was employed by the Housing Authority as an assistant property manager at the apartment complex. The plaintiff alleged that the Housing Authority unlawfully retaliated against her in violation of Florida statutes for reporting child neglect/abuse while performing her duties as an assistant property manager.
Specifically, during a routine inspection of the apartments in preparation for upcoming Department of Housing and Urban Development inspections, the plaintiff and her supervisor discovered a severely malnourished infant left alone in one of the units. Police were immediately contacted, and the plaintiff and others employed at the Housing Authority participated in the investigation, leading to the mother’s arrest. The plaintiff took photographs of the infant and testified she shared them via social media with a co-worker as a way to “document” the incident with the Housing Authority, alleging she was unaware of any other means to provide her supervisors with the photographs. The Housing Authority was alerted several days later that a screenshot of the social media message was posted on the mother's social media page. After an investigation by external legal counsel, both the plaintiff and her co-worker were terminated for violating company privacy and technology policies.
In the complaint, the plaintiff alleged that she was retaliated against for reporting child neglect/abuse pursuant to Florida Statute s. 39.203, which, as it pertains to this case, provides protection to an employee of a facility serving children against discharge or other reprisal for her actions in reporting abuse, abandonment, or neglect. The plaintiff, who was six months pregnant at the time, alleged that the Housing Authority wrongfully terminated her and that she and her children became homeless after her termination and sought damages, including lost wages of over three years and non-economic damages, along with attorney’s fees and costs. After the plaintiff refused to negotiate a reasonable settlement and continued seeking damages above the sovereign immunity caps, the Housing Authority filed a motion for final summary judgment. The motion argued that (1) the Housing Authority was not a “facility serving children” within the meaning of s. 39.203(2), Fla. Stat. (2020); (2) the plaintiff did not report the incident pursuant to the requirements of Ch. 39, Fla. Stat. (2020); and (3) the plaintiff’s termination was for a legitimate business purpose. The plaintiff argued that the Housing Authority is a facility serving children as more than half of its residents are children and the Housing Authority regularly helps facilitate and promote children’s programs throughout Pinellas County.
This was a case of first impression with regard to a residential apartment complex being alleged to be a “facility serving children.” Chapter 39, Fla. Stat. does not directly define a “facility serving children,” and there are no state or federal cases in Florida that specifically define the term. Mr. Tucker argued that the term can be defined through statutory interpretation of other definitions within the statute and rulings on different sections of Chapter 39. After a full briefing, an hour-long hearing, and almost a month of contemplation, the court agreed with Mr. Tucker’s interpretation of the statute and ruled that the Housing Authority is not a “facility serving children.” As a result, the plaintiff was not a qualified individual under s. 39.203, Fla. Stat. and did not have standing to bring a statutory retaliation claim.
The court’s ruling in favor of the Housing Authority’s motion for final summary judgment eliminated the Housing Authority’s exposure to potentially high damages and attorney’s fees.