Florida Appeals Court Rules Against Former Palm Beach Battalion Chief

A Florida appellate court has ruled against a former battalion chief who sued the Town of Palm Beach following his demotion and termination. Former Battalion Chief Jason Weeks sued the town for fraud, conspiracy to defame, negligent supervision, negligent interference with a prospective advantageous business relationship, and denial of due process.

Chief Weeks was demoted to Firefighter/Paramedic and suspension for 240 hours without pay  in October 2011 for his involvement with a website that was critical of the town’s plans for handling pensions. He was later fired in December 2012. The trial court ruled granted summary judgment to the town and Chief Weeks appealed to the Fourth District Court of Appeals for Florida.

In affirming the trial court, the 4th District Court of Appeals held:

  • In this case, the trial court correctly found that the Appellees were absolutely immune from defamation claims due to their status as public officials.
  • Weeks’ initial complaint and first amended complaint included claims for defamation.
  • After the trial court considered the defense of absolute immunity, Weeks filed a second amended complaint, and instead of including a claim for defamation, asserted a claim for common law fraud.
  • The terminology used in each of the three complaints regarding statements made in the various investigations indicates that the re-labeling of the defamation claim was simply a poisoned apple.
  • Based upon the facts presented to the trial court and made part of the appellate record, the statements made by the Appellees were protected by absolute privilege from claims for defamation, no matter how false, malicious, or badly motivated. [emphasis added]
  • This is because the alleged statements or accusations were made in the course of sanctioned investigations by the Appellees.
  • As such, the controlling factor of whether the communications were in the scope of the public officer’s duties was met for each Appellee.
  • The statute of limitations for a defamation suit is two years.
  • On appeal and below, Weeks claims that the Town terminated him based upon a compilation of allegations that were fabricated on December 13, 2012. The record on appeal demonstrates that Weeks knew of the alleged defamatory statements at or near the time of publication. The instant lawsuit, filed three years later on December 9, 2015, was one year beyond the conclusion of the statute of limitations for defamation.
  • We therefore affirm the trial court’s entry of summary judgment on this basis.
  • Consequently, we affirm the trial court’s order granting summary judgment in favor of the Appellees because the Appellees were immune from claims for defamation and Weeks filed the lawsuit beyond the applicable two year statute of limitations.

Here is a copy of the decision:  2018 Weeks v. Town of Palm Beach_ 2018 Fla. App. LEXIS 10381

According to the Palm Beach Daily News, the town settled a separate whistleblower lawsuit with Chief Weeks in 2014 for $300,000. More on the story.

 

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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