ernest_donaldson_web.jpgHOMESTEAD — A federal judge has rejected a motion from the city of Homestead to have a former worker’s retaliation lawsuit dismissed. The move sets the stage for a jury trial.

The city argued in its motion that former employee Ernest Donaldson “failed to establish a claim of retaliation, either through direct or circumstantial evidence.”

But the court disagreed, citing an alleged statement from a former city manager to the employee that his termination was “payback’’ for a discrimination complaint he had filed against the city.

“Because there are genuine issues of material fact, Defendant’s motion is denied,” U.S. District Court Judge Patricia A. Seitz wrote in a July 28 ruling.

Seitz handed down the decision in response to the city’s motion for a summary judgment and dismissal of a discrimination case filed by Donaldson, a former supervisor in the city’s solid waste division.

Donaldson is seeking back pay, reinstatement to his old job and unspecified damages over his February 2008 firing for DUI and for allegedly threatening the officers who arrested him.

City Manager Sergio Purrinos did not respond to repeated requests for comment, and it was unclear whether the city would seek to settle the case or proceed to trial.

In an email to the South Florida Times, the attorney representing the city in the case also declined comment.

“It is generally the Firm’s policy not to comment on pending litigation,” said Lori Adelson, an attorney with the Weiss Serota law firm.

Donaldson was pleased with the court’s ruling.

“I’m glad the judge saw through the city’s dishonesty,” Donaldson said. “They [Homestead managers] set me up and none of their witnesses can be trusted.”

DUI arrest

Homestead police arrested Donaldson and charged him with driving under the influence on Sunday, Jan. 27, 2008. He contacted the human resources department the next day, and enrolled in a city-sponsored alcohol abuse program, even though the DUI charge came on the weekend, when he was not working.

After inquiring at the human resources department about the substance abuse program, the arresting officers alleged in emails, days later, to Human Resources Director Marcie Heese that Donaldson was verbally abusive to them, and that he made threats towards the officers’ family members during his arrest.

“You don’t know who I’m [sic], I’ve worked 20 years for this city and I will make sure you loose [sic] you’re [sic] job,” are some of the comments officer Jose Villarreal accused Donaldson of  making in an email on Jan. 31. “I hope and I know that your day will come and I will find where you live.”

On Feb. 1, another officer, Kevin S. Carvajal, sent a similar email to Heese. That was followed by a statement from Officer Lester Brown on Feb. 6, a day after Donaldson was fired.

“Mr. Donaldson became irate, began to yell and scream profanities and threats to both myself and Officer K. Carvajal and L. Brown,” Villarreal wrote.
Donaldson denied the allegations, insisting that he was cooperative during the arrest. 

“It caught me by surprise because none of what they were saying ever happened,” Donaldson recalled. “I would have to be crazy to threaten a police officer or their family members.”

The threat allegations were never included in the police report, and statements later provided by the officers about Donaldson’s conduct were nearly the same, word for word.

“This is the most outrageous case I’ve seen,” said Kelsay D. Patterson, the attorney representing Donaldson. “The officers said a supervisor told them to issue the statement and they admitted collaborating on them.”

Based on the officers’ statements made days after the arrest, then-City Manager Curt K. Ivy Jr. fired Donaldson on Feb. 5, 2008. He appealed the decision, but Ivy himself was fired a short time later, before the appeal could be heard. On March 4, 2008 new City Manager Mike Shehadeh met with Donaldson, but affirmed and upheld his termination. 

Donaldson filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), and later filed a federal lawsuit on May 21, 2009, alleging he was the victim of retaliation, because he had filed a racial discrimination complaint against his employer in 2003.

In the discrimination case, Donaldson com-plained that black people were unfairly being passed over for promotions in the city’s Solid Waste Department.

The EEOC negotiated a settlement between Donaldson and Homestead officials that resulted in the promotions of Donaldson and another black worker, James Gold, to positions as foremen. The city settled an unrelated retaliation lawsuit filed by Gold in 2009.

Troublesome Witnesses

Jose Villareal, the officer who initially made the threat allegations against Donaldson, was himself arrested on Dec. 11, 2009 by Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents. Villareal was charged with official misconduct, uttering a forged instrument and making false official statements.

The FDLE alleged that Villarreal submitted a birth certificate stating that his birth year was 1978, when it was actually 1977. The birth certificate also allegedly contained a fake middle name and listed his aunt as his mother.

Villareal then allegedly used that citizenship certificate to apply for a state police certification and a job with the Homestead Police Department. Those charges were dismissed initially, but he remains under criminal investigation by the Miami-Dade State’s Attorney’s Office for unspecified reasons.

Neither Villarreal nor his attorney could be reached for comment. Purrinos, the current city manager, would not disclose Villareal’s employment status with the Homestead Police Department. The validity of his citizenship remains unclear.

Since Donaldson filed his lawsuit, Heese and Shehadeh have been fired. Shehadeh now has a discrimination lawsuit of his own against the city.

“Let’s just call it payback”

In her 11-page decision, Judge Seitz wrote that in firing Donaldson, Ivy never reviewed the personnel files of the three officers making the allegations, and he was “unaware of problems the officers had had in the past, including ethical issues and issues of veracity.” 

Donaldson submitted affidavits detailing conversations he had with Shehadeh, who he says told him he was fired because of the 2003 discrimination complaint.

According to Donaldson’s affidavit, during a June 2008 encounter with Shehadeh at a local Wal-Mart store, Donaldson said he asked Shehadeh why he was terminated, and Shehadeh replied, “Just to let you know that we had not forgotten about your EEOC charge from a few years back. Let’s just call it payback.”

There were no witnesses to the alleged conversation, but the court cited it among the reasons for denying the motion for dismissal. Efforts to reach Shehadeh and his attorney about the allegation were unsuccessful, and it is unclear whether the city will call him as a witness at trial.

“This is case about a city that does what it wants, with no regard for what is right,” said Patterson, Donaldson’s attorney. “Their case has all sorts of holes in it, and this guy [Donaldson] really got a raw deal.”
Photo Above:     Ernest Donaldson