Former employees of Joel Greenberg allege he fired them for supporting political opponent

Former employees of Seminole County Tax Collector Joel Greenberg have filed a federal lawsuit against him alleging Greenberg violated their First Amendment rights by firing them for supporting his political opponent during the 2016 election. 

The complaint, filed Oct. 9 in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, is the second high-profile lawsuit for Greenberg.

On Oct. 5, a Muslim woman fired by Greenberg last year filed a federal lawsuit alleging he discriminated against her based on gender, race and religion. Earlier this year, Greenberg received intense public backlash after several Islamophobic social media posts, including one question on Facebook that said, "Very simple question...Name just ONE society in the developed world that has benefited in ANY WAY from the introduction of more Muslims. Just one. Asking for a friend."

The most recent lawsuit was filed by Keesha Richardson, Fidela Denny and Maria Humphreys, three former employees who had worked for years in the Seminole County Tax Collector's Office under Greenberg's predecessor, Ray Valdes.

During the 2016 primary elections, Valdes, a Republican who was elected to the position in 1998, ran for re-election against his GOP challenger Greenberg. Valdes lost the election to Greenberg, who went on to win the general election against a write-in opponent because Seminole Democrats did not have a candidate on the ballot.

Richardson, Denny and Humphreys said they all campaigned in support of Valdes before the primary election, according to the lawsuit.

Richardson, who started working for the tax collector's office in 1997, attended promotional campaign events and debates, and held signs in public promoting Valdes' re-election, all during non-working hours. Similarly, Denny and Humphreys also participated in campaign events, debates, sign-waving and public canvassing during their personal time.

In addition, Denny says she actively showed her support for Valdes on Facebook by uploading photos of signs supporting him, asking her social media contacts to vote for Valdes and rebutting false information she heard being spread about Valdes, according to the lawsuit.

All three employees stated that Greenberg and his staff saw them at these campaign events supporting their boss at the time.

Within four days of Greenberg taking office, the lawsuit alleges he fired both Denny and Humphreys on Jan. 6, 2017. Denny had worked for the office since 2006 and served as a branch manager whose performance consistently met or exceeded expectations. The complaint said she was accused of "unethical behavior" for campaigning for a former boss and was terminated "at the will of the tax collector." When the state investigated the reason for Denny's dismissal during her application for unemployment, Greenberg's office said her position was closed – even though a younger person was promoted to fill Denny's position, the lawsuit alleges.

Under Florida law, public employees can't be prohibited from "expressing his or her opinions on any candidate or issue or from participating in any political campaign during the employee's off-duty hours." The state bans public officials from appointing, demoting or dismissing from any position in the career service because of "political opinion or affiliation." Further, the law says no officials should use their authority to secure for any person an appointment or advantage in appointment to a position in the career service.

Orlando Weekly reached out to Greenberg's office for a comment but did not receive an immediate response. In reference to the first lawsuit, a spokesperson previously told OW that Greenberg's office has a policy of not commenting on ongoing litigation.

In a brief filed Oct. 9 with the federal court, the Seminole County Tax Collector's Office denied the employees' allegations.

"Defendant affirmatively asserts that each and every Plaintiff was discharged based on legitimate, non-discriminatory and non-retaliatory business reason," the brief said. "The sole and proximate causes of Plaintiffs damages, if any, are their own actions and failure to perform the essential functions of their duties."

Humphreys, who started at the tax collector's office in 1997 and most recently served as a supervisor and "exemplary employee," also said she was terminated at the will of the tax collector, according to the lawsuit.

"Plaintiffs engaged in their protected right to publicly campaign for the re-election of then Seminole County Tax Collector, Mr. Valdes," the lawsuit said. "[Mr. Greenberg] retaliated against Plaintiffs for expressing their support of Mr. Valdes' campaign for public office by terminating all of them." 

Richardson, who began working for the tax collector's office in 1997 as a customer service representative and was promoted to the Lake Mary Branch Manager position, additionally alleged Greenberg intentionally discriminated against her because she is African American.

Before she was terminated on May 12, 2017 at the will of the tax collector, Richardson said Greenberg preferred branch managers who were white and treated them better, according to the lawsuit.

During Greenberg's transition into office, Richardson said she was given the impression that she would be considered for a promotion to director of branch operations and was praised for her performance, but the position was ultimately given to a white woman who did not campaign for Valdes, the lawsuit alleges. 

"Mr. Greenberg began disregarding my input at round table meetings, denying me promotions, and assigning me to work extended hours under threat of termination," Richardson said in a complaint filed with the Florida Commission on Human Relations and the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission agency.

The employees are asking for monetary damages, as well as back pay, front pay and attorney fees.

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