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State v. Bracewell

Florida Court of Appeals, First District

May 19, 2017

STATE OF FLORIDA, DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, Appellant,
v.
CAROLANN BRACEWELL AND TED JETER, Appellees.

         NOT FINAL UNTIL TIME EXPIRES TO FILE MOTION FOR REHEARING AND DISPOSITION THEREOF IF FILED

         An appeal from the Circuit Court for Leon County. James C. Hankinson, Judge.

          Jeffrey Slanker and Robert J. Sniffen of Sniffen & Spellman, P.A., Tallahassee, for Appellant.

          Marie A. Mattox and Erika Esan Goodman of Marie A. Mattox, P.A., Tallahassee, for Appellees.

          PER CURIAM.

         The Florida Department of Corrections (DOC) appeals a final judgment in favor of Carolann Bracewell and Ted Jeter (Appellees) following a jury trial on their complaint for violation of the Florida public sector Whistle-blower's Act (FWA). Appellees alleged that DOC terminated their employment in retaliation for complaints they made to DOC's Office of the Inspector General (OIG) concerning one of its inspectors. Acknowledging that the decision makers at DOC who terminated Appellees' employment did not harbor any retaliatory animus, Appellees proceeded under a cat's paw theory of liability to hold DOC vicariously liable for the biased actions of the OIG inspector. On appeal, DOC argues that the trial court erred in denying DOC's motions for a directed verdict and for judgment in accordance with motion for directed verdict. Because we agree with DOC that the cat's paw theory of liability is inapplicable in this case as a matter of law, we reverse and remand for the trial court to enter judgment in favor of DOC.

         I.

         Jeter was the Warden at Jackson Correctional Institution (JCI) and Bracewell was the Assistant Warden. In July of 2011, two inmates sought medical attention from JCI's infirmary. The inmates were kept in the infirmary over the weekend and were admitted to a hospital the following Monday. Following one of the inmate's complaint alleging he had received poor medical treatment, the OIG assigned inspector Julie Mader to investigate the matter.

         Soon thereafter, Appellees complained several times to Mader's supervisors about the way she was conducting the investigation and also accused her of HIPAA violations and improperly accessing the driving records and history of Jeter and his brother. As a result of Appellees' complaints, the OIG removed Mader from the investigation in December of 2011 and assigned two new inspectors, Louis Cordova and Michael Harrison, to the on-going investigation. Although Mader was no longer permitted to actively participate in the investigation, she did confer with Cordova and Harrison and provided them with clerical assistance, including typing summaries of recordings of witness interviews for the final investigative report. Mader had interviewed some witnesses by the time Cordova and Harrison took over the investigation, but the majority of the interviews were conducted by the new inspectors who also interviewed Appellees. In addition, Cordova and Harrison were responsible for reviewing the accuracy of all witness interview summaries prepared by Mader before they were included in the final report.

         Through their investigation, Cordova and Harrison determined that Appellees, along with other DOC employees, committed numerous violations of DOC policies. The general content, specific findings, and final conclusions of the report were reached solely by Cordova and Harrison. The report did not include disciplinary recommendations for any of DOC's employees.

         In March of 2012, Cordova and Harrison submitted their report to the then-Secretary of the DOC, Kenneth Tucker. Deputy DOC Secretary Michael Crews and Assistant DOC Secretary over Institutions Tim Cannon reviewed the OIG's report and made recommendations to Secretary Tucker. Secretary Tucker was the decision maker who determined what, if any, tangible employment action would be taken against DOC employees who were found to have violated DOC policies. Ultimately, Secretary Tucker terminated Appellees' employment in May of 2012.

         Appellees filed a civil complaint against DOC alleging a single violation of the FWA. Because there was no evidence of retaliatory bias by those DOC employees who were involved in the decision to terminate Appellees (namely, Secretary Tucker, Deputy Secretary Crews, and Assistant Secretary Cannon), Appellees relied on the cat's paw theory alleging that DOC was vicariously liable for the biased actions of OIG inspector Mader. Appellees claimed that Mader harbored retaliatory bias against them for reporting her misconduct during the investigation and that she acted with the intent to cause DOC to terminate Appellees by influencing the OIG's final report. Thus, according to Appellees, Mader's bias should be imputed to DOC decision makers because DOC relied on the OIG's tainted investigation when making the final decision to terminate Appellees.

         DOC moved for a directed verdict at the close of Appellees' case and again at the close of all evidence. Regarding the cat's paw theory, DOC argued that in order to find liability, the law required the decision maker to "rubber-stamp" the recommendations of the individual with the biased retaliatory motive, and there was no evidence that Mader or anyone at the OIG made any disciplinary recommendations. The trial court denied both motions. The jury returned a verdict in favor of Appellees, and DOC moved for a new trial and for judgment in accordance with the motions for directed verdict. In addition to its previous arguments regarding the cat's paw theory, DOC argued that the replacement of Mader with inspectors Cordova and Harrison removed any potential taint and that even if the cat's paw theory could apply, there was no evidence that the alleged actions of Mader were the proximate cause of Appellees' termination. Relying on Staub v. Proctor Hospital, 562 U.S. 411 (2011), DOC also argued that ...


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