September 12, 2016

Florida Appellate Court Denies Ombudsman's Suit Against State

A Florida State appellate court had ruled that a former Long-Term Care Ombudsman cannot sue for wrongful termination. Former Regional Director for the Florida Ombudsman Council Clare Caldwell had alleged that she was fired in 2011 after complaining publicly that the Department of Elder Affairs had interfered with the Ombuds program, which investigates complaints about assisted-living facilities and nursing homes. 

The First District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee (which handles most of state's administrative law appeals) reversed a trial court decision saying that “there is no indication that the Legislature specifically intended to permit the Department to be sued for ‘interference’ in … the ombudsman program.” Caldwell said she was told “that she served at the will of the Secretary and he no longer needed her services,” the opinion said. The court added that “to the extent that Caldwell claims the Legislature waived sovereign immunity under (state law), that provision applies only to tort claims, not to statutory claims such as retaliatory discharge.” In essence, when confronted with the issue of the Ombuds independence versus the State's immunity, the Court sided with the State. (Florida v. Caldwell; Lakeland Ledger.)

Although this case involved a Classical Ombudsman, it may have some relevance for other Ombuds working for public entities, especially if there is no statutory protection for independence.  

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