FORT PIERCE — A federal court judge has dismissed a portion of a lawsuit filed by six former officers and employees of the Port St. Lucie Police Department who allege their constitutional rights were violated after being wrongfully terminated.
U.S. District Court Judge Jose E. Martinez issued the order Friday afternoon declaring City Manager Greg Oravec did not violate the city's charter by eliminating the employees' positions back in April.
The rest of the lawsuit involving claims the officers were denied due process in their terminations and allegations there were violations of Florida's Sunshine Law as part of the layoffs still can be refiled.
Attorneys for the employees argued any altering of a department would have to be done through an ordinance per the city charter. However, the judge ruled an ordinance only would be necessary if the City Council were to take action to alter a city department.
The duties of the city manager, which include the power to hire and fire city employees, are listed in the charter. According to the ruling, the officers did not point to any charter or ordinance which limits Oravec's authority to reduce the police force and reorganize the Police Department.
On April 10, Oravec laid off Maj. Gary L. Robinson, Maj. Scott Bartal, Capt. Don Kryak, Capt. Steven M. Claus Sr. and civilian employees Sheila K. Bronger, a supervisor in the communication division, and Sheila B. O'Sullivan, an administrator in the communication department. The employees filed the termination suit in May, which then moved to federal court in July.
"This Court finds that the City's interpretation of the Charter — that the City Manager is vested with the authority to make reductions in the police force without the issuance of an ordinance — to be permissible under the language of the Charter and is certainly not clearly erroneous," stated the ruling. "As such, this Court finds that no violation of the Charter occurred and Oravec's actions as City Manager were within his powers granted by the Charter."
Oravec, who upon hearing the news of the dismissal shortly before 4 p.m. Friday, smiled and embraced City Attorney Roger Orr as they patted each other on the back.
"It's a strange feeling because as I set forth all of those actions of the reorganization they were taken with great care," Oravec said Friday evening. "I never would have implemented them if I thought in any way I wasn't empowered to take them.
"I went through that process, of course, I felt it was right and then, of course you, have to defend it," Oravec said. "It's very satisfying and I'm pleased with the judge's ruling."
Oravec and Orr received word of the ruling as they sat in a second hearing before 19th Circuit Court Judge Dwight L. Geiger in a state lawsuit filed by the same six police department employees. That lawsuit claims the employees have been denied access to public records needed to argue their wrongful termination suit.
Attorney Lorenzo Williams, who represents the former police department employees in both federal and state suits, said they plan to refile an amended complaint in U.S. District Court on the other claims listed in the federal lawsuit.
One claim alleges a violation of the plaintiffs' constitutional right to due process guaranteed by the 14th Amendment, which prohibits state and local government from depriving citizens of life, liberty and property without taking steps to guarantee fairness.
The other claim in the federal suit points to alleged violations of the Florida Sunshine Law because elected city officials supposedly met with Oravec before the dismissals to give him guidance.
The federal ruling states because the attorneys representing the plaintiffs didn't properly allege a due process violation, they can amend and refile the complaint and can include the allegation of the sunshine law violation. Oct. 11 is the deadline to refile, according to the ruling.
Williams said the order to dismiss this charter portion is "just a bump in the road" and he's confident his clients will win out, they'll just have to tweak their game plan.
"We'll take the checkered flag," Williams said.
Williams also said Friday's ruling will have no impact on their state public records lawsuit where his clients allege the city is in violation of Florida's Public Records Act.
Williams and co-counsel Attorney Stuart Address have requested a total of 106 items including city emails, City Council minutes and other documents going as far back as 1992. A $3.5 million quote, given to them by the city's legal office, covers editing, copying costs and the staff time to go through the millions of records.
The suit seeks for the city to produce the records in a timely fashion without the hefty price tag.
"All we're simply saying is we're entitled to it, we're citizens of the state ... and you cannot obstruct the law simply by creating an outrageous unfair cost," Williams said Friday after the records hearing.