While this case may be bad for local government, it is worse for the politician. On Tuesday morning on the first page of the Tampa Bay Times, the paper reported “Porn Claims Get Her Fired.” The sub headline reads “Hillsborough’s appraiser did send staffer porn, but he never discriminated against her, he says.” Regardless of the outcome of this case, the ending for this politician will not be good.
Carolynn Filippone worked in the office of the Hillsborough County Property Appraiser, holding a couple of positions before eventually rising to the level of director of human resources. She worked for the current Property Appraiser Rob Turner. Approximately, two years ago she filed a Charge of Discrimination against Turner’s office with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) based on allegations of sexual harassment. Specifically, Filippone alleged that Turner had sent her pornographic photos through the emails. She also alleged that Turner had sent him a text that attached a photo of his genitals. Think allegations against made by former FSU cowgirl against Brett Farve or former New York Congressman Anthony Weiner.
Readers should understand that this is not a slam dunk case for Ms. Filippone. In the legal field we like to make reference to tests or prongs. The first prong in a harassment case is that the alleged harasser engaged in “unwelcome” conduct. Although Turner denies the texting allegations, he does not deny that he sent her the porn. He defends himself by saying that she was a willing participant. There is no dispute that Turner and Filippone for a certain period were engaged in romantic relationship. He says it lasted about a year and a half. She says it lasted for years. Somewhere along the way, it broke off, yet he thought it was okay to send her porn.
Again, Ms. Filippone opened a file with the EEOC approximately two years ago. The EEOC closed the file in April indicating “The EEOC is unable to conclude that the information obtained establishes violations of the statutes.” At this point, Turner believed he won the case and on Monday, he fired Ms. Filippone. In other words, he went from exercising poor judgment, with his use of the emails, to failing to consult wise counsel regarding the employment of Ms. Filippone. Also, a story that was unknown to the public has become front page news for the last three days.
The dismissal of the EEOC case started a 90-day clock for Ms. Filippone. She has until sometime in July to decide whether she wants to drop her case against Turner’s office or move forward with a lawsuit in state of federal court. She is also represented by an excellent Tampa attorney, Steve Wenzel, who is guiding her through her decision. By firing Ms. Filipponne, Turner unwittingly gave her a reason to move forward with a lawsuit. To make matters worse, Ms. Filippone can add allegations of retaliation on top of her harassment claims. I have not done a scientific study, but I always felt that a retaliation claim is always easier to prove than a discrimination or harassment claim.
In less than 30 seconds, these are the lessons for employers from the Turner case: 1) do not date your employees (think Glenn Close and Fatal Attraction); 2) do not send your employees porn; and 3) do not fire your employees when they are in the middle of deciding on whether they should sue you. In other words, if you are an employer or manager, you need to be able to exercise good judgment and common sense.
Even if Turner’s office prevails in this case, irreparable damage has been done to him and any legacy he was hoping to achieve. The Property Appraiser position is an elected office, which Turner held for 16 years. This is an election year and although Turner vowed to seek reelection, the likelihood of an unknown defeating him has increased dramatically.
If you have questions about sexual harassment, feel free to call me, Rich Bradford at (813) 413-2402.