TALLAHASSEE — Florida Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis is asking a federal judge to toss out a lawsuit alleging that an employee lost her job because she refused to back Patronis’ election campaign last year.
Patronis’ attorney, Brian Keri, argued in a 21-page document filed last week that the lawsuit should be dismissed and that the Republican Cabinet member disputes allegations that longtime state employee Christine Taul was forced out of her job because she did not attend a fundraising event and write a campaign check.
“CFO Patronis adamantly denies Taul’s allegations that she was dismissed because she did not attend a fundraiser or contribute to his successful 2018 campaign to remain Florida’s CFO,” the document, a motion to dismiss, said. “Rather, Taul’s employer, DFS (the Department of Financial Services), dismissed her for ongoing performance deficiencies, despite attempts to correct the deficiencies over several months with training opportunities and counseling. This dismissal had nothing to do with CFO Patronis’ campaign.”
Taul, a Democrat, filed the lawsuit Oct. 31 in federal court in Tallahassee, less than a week before Patronis was elected to a four-year term. Taul, who had served as a risk management program administrator since 1994, said in the lawsuit that she refused to attend a Patronis fundraising event in August and was subsequently told she would be terminated if she did not resign. The lawsuit said she “resigned under duress.”
“Defendant Patronis has violated plaintiff Taul’s constitutional rights by retaliating against plaintiff Taul for her speech and right to not associate with defendant Patronis and to not make (a) campaign contribution to his campaign,” Taul’s attorneys, Ryan Andrews and Steve Andrews, wrote in the lawsuit. “Plaintiff Taul associates with a different political party and does not share the same beliefs as defendant Patronis. As a result of associating with a political party different than that which defendant Patronis is a member and not associating with defendant Patronis, defendant Patronis retaliated against plaintiff Taul by constructively discharging her from her employment with DFS as the risk management program administrator.”
Patronis’ motion to dismiss the case centers on an argument that he is entitled to “qualified immunity,” a legal concept that helps protect public officials from lawsuits for actions they take in their jobs. The document said Taul “cannot provide any precedent establishing the unlawfulness of the dismissal of DFS’s risk management program administrator.”
“There is no case precedent addressing Florida’s CFO and the allegation that dismissals were based upon failing to attend a fundraiser or failing to contribute to a campaign,” the motion said. “There is no case precedent addressing the termination of DFS’s risk management program administrator, a position that Taul asserts is one of the most important at DFS. Given the particular circumstances of this case, and the uniqueness of the DFS position involved here, there is no precedent that is similar enough to this case to establish clearly the applicable law.”
But in the lawsuit, Taul’s attorneys argued that her First Amendment rights were violated and that she is entitled to damages.
“Political beliefs and association constitute the core of those activities protected by the First Amendment,” the lawsuit said. “Defendant Patronis had fair notice of the case law prohibiting the actions taken by him against plaintiff. It is well settled that neither a state nor its employees can condition employment on a basis that infringes the employee’s constitutionally protected interest in freedom of expression.”