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Florida Sheriff Not Immune from Suit in Hiring Decisions Allegedly Motivated By Politics, Eleventh Circuit Rules

by Lonnie Burton

On December 14, 2016, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit reversed a lower court ruling and reinstated a lawsuit brought by a former Broward County, Florida, deputy sheriff who sued the sheriff for refusing to rehire him. The deputy sheriff said the decision was politically motivated, but the lower court ruled that the sheriff was acting as an arm of the state and thus immune from being sued in federal court under the Eleventh Amendment.

Jeffrey Stanley had worked for the Broward County Sheriff's Office (BSO) as a deputy sheriff before resigning in 2007 to take a job as a director of security at a new hospital in Miami Beach. When the hospital failed to open as planned, Stanley applied to be rehired by the BSO.

Under BSO policy, when a former employee is rehired, his pay grade must be lower than it was when he left. This policy was said to be designed to to deter deputies from moving to other law enforcement agencies and then returning if they failed their new training or certification requirements. When Stanley reapplied at the BSO, he complained that this policy should not apply to him since he did not take another law enforcement position. In the end, however, Stanley accepted a conditional offer of employment in September 2008, at a lower pay grade contingent on successful mental and physical evaluations.

At the time Stanley applied to be rehired, Sheriff Al Lamberti was running for reelection, but Stanley openly supported his opponent, Scott Israel. When Lamberti won reelection, Stanley received a call informing him he would not be rehired because he was seen wearing a T-shirt supporting Israel's candidacy. In the formal letter rescinding the offer of employment, the BSO wrote that "areas of concern arose during the selection process."

Stanley then sued the sheriff in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, alleging violations of his First Amendment rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The case was eventually dismissed by the district court after the Eleventh Circuit issued a decision that a Georgia sheriff was acting as an "arm of the State" when hiring and firing deputies, and thus immune from suit under the Eleventh Amendment. See: Pellitteri v. Prine, 776 F.3d 777 (11th Cir. 2015). Applying that case to Stanley's, the district court granted the BSO's motion for summary judgment and dismissed the case. Stanley appealed.

The Eleventh Circuit reversed, finding that since much of the Georgia decision was driven by state law, Florida law compelled a different result in Stanley's case.

As opposed to the Georgia case, the sheriff in Broward County was not acting as an "arm of the State" when exercising his authority to hire and fire deputies, the court found. Numerous factors weighed in favor of this decision, the court said.

Sheriffs in Georgia derive their powers from the state, while in Florida sheriff's act "pursuant to [an] express grant of authority by the County." Second, Florida state law defines sheriffs as county officers, and it gives counties the authority to choose its Chief Corrections Officers, or CODs. "These characteristics are indicative to county status," the court held, and such municipalities, unlike a state, are not immune from suit in federal court.

Other factors that indicated Florida sheriffs are not acting under state authority include the fact that the Florida constitution leaves with the counties the choice of whether to have a sheriff at all, the counties control the responsibilities of the sheriff and his deputies and the ability to regulate the removal of deputies, and the sheriff's budget is funded entirely by the county. These factors, the Eleventh Circuit said, are "strong indicators" of county control that are "not outweighed by the fact that the state maintains some control over the budget review process."

Finally, the court found that because no provision of state law provides state funds for a sheriff to satisfy a judgment against the sheriff, all of these factors lead to the conclusion that "a Florida sheriff is not an arm of the state when he is acting in his capacity of CCO in the hiring and firing of deputies." The district court's order granting summary judgment to BSO was therefore reversed and the case remanded for further proceedings. See: Stanley v. Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel, No. 15-13961 (11th Cir. 2016).

(NOTE: Scott Israel ran for sheriff again in 2012 and won, and thus he was substituted in as a defendant as Lamberti was sued in his official capacity.)

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Related legal case

Stanley v. Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel