Florida House attorneys next week will try to convince an appeals court that a former legislator should be shielded from a lawsuit filed by a one-time aide who alleges she was fired after reporting improper conduct.
Former Rep. Kimberly Daniels, a Jacksonville Democrat who is represented by House attorneys, went to the 1st District Court of Appeal in April after a Leon County circuit judge refused to dismiss the case filed by Karen Riggien.
Riggien, who worked as a legislative aide to Daniels from September 2017 to February 2018, contends she was wrongfully terminated after reporting conduct such as Daniels requiring her to perform personal tasks during the workday. Riggien alleges the firing was an act of retaliation in violation of her First Amendment rights.
But attorneys for Daniels, who lost a reelection bid in an August primary, argue that she should be shielded from the lawsuit because of “qualified immunity.” That legal concept generally protects government officials from personal liability in cases related to their duties.
“Contrary to Ms. Riggien’s bare assertions, this is not an exceptional case,” House General Counsel Daniel Bell and other attorneys from the House and the Office of Legislative Services wrote in an October brief. “It is a routine occurrence in qualified immunity litigation: a First Amendment retaliation lawsuit premised on a wholly internal employment grievance by a former state employee followed temporally by the employee’s eventual termination. Because the courts have made clear that such claims are meritless, Ms. Riggien cannot carry her burden to show a constitutional violation, much less one that was clearly established at the time of Rep. Daniels’ alleged actions.”
But Riggien’s attorneys contend that qualified immunity should not shield Daniels from the lawsuit because the allegations involve a violation of constitutional rights.
“Ms. Riggien alleged a violation of the First Amendment, and her rights pursuant to the First Amendment were clearly established at the time Rep. Daniels’ retaliated against her for exercising those rights,” Riggien’s attorneys, Ashley Richardson and Marie Mattox, wrote in an August brief. “This (appeals) court should thus affirm the trial court’s order below, denying Rep. Daniels’ motion to dismiss.”
A three-judge panel of the Tallahassee-based appeals court is scheduled to hear arguments in the case on Jan. 5. Riggien filed the lawsuit in 2019 in Leon County circuit court, and Circuit Judge Kevin Carroll refused to dismiss it in March, prompting Daniels’ appeal.
The lawsuit said Riggien reported alleged misconduct by Daniels to then-Director of House Administration Steve Godwin in early 2018. In part, Riggien alleged that Daniels assigned her to do personal tasks, such as working on Daniels’ home insurance and helping Daniels’ son gain admission to Florida State University.
The lawsuit also alleged that Daniels’ boyfriend, who did not work for the House, was allowed to supervise Riggien and ask her to perform tasks. Riggien was fired on Feb. 13, 2018, according to court documents.
The appeal focuses on whether Daniels is entitled to qualified immunity, rather than the underlying allegations of misconduct. Daniels was first elected to the House in 2016 before losing her Duval County seat to Democratic Rep. Angie Nixon of Jacksonville in August.
Daniels’ attorneys said her position “is that Ms. Riggien spoke as an employee, not a citizen, because she merely reported employment grievances to a supervisor.” As a result, they contend the allegations do not support a First Amendment claim.
“(The) sum of Ms. Riggien’s allegations is that she was terminated for making an internal complaint to a supervisor regarding her work conditions and interference with her ordinary job duties,” Daniels’ attorneys wrote in a June brief. “Ms. Riggien has identified no case holding that such allegations state a claim for First Amendment retaliation, and we are aware of none.”
Republished with permission of The News Service of Florida.