TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) – In what could be a first-of-its-kind decision, an appeals court has said a state agency is shielded from a lawsuit filed by a Florida Highway Patrol trooper who contended he faced job discrimination because of his service in the U.S. Navy Reserve.

A three-judge panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal ruled Friday that sovereign immunity protects the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles from the lawsuit filed in 2014 by James Hightower, who alleged he faced a “hostile work environment” at the highway patrol because of leave he took for military duties.

Broadly, sovereign immunity is designed to shield government agencies from costly lawsuits. Hightower’s lawsuit pointed to state and federal laws aimed at preventing discrimination against service members, but the appeals court said the Legislature did not create a sovereign-immunity waiver that would allow him to pursue the case.

The 13-page opinion, written by Judge M. Kemmerly Thomas and joined by Judge Clay Roberts and Associate Judge J. Scott Duncan, said the “Legislature is well-aware of how to explicitly waive state immunity in enactment of new law.” But it did not do so in the state law known as the Florida Uniformed Servicemembers Protection Act. Also, Thomas wrote that claims against states under the federal law, the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994, must be filed in state courts “in accord with the laws of that state.”

“Hightower’s argument that Florida waived sovereign immunity is based on speculation as to the Legislature’s purpose in enacting the statute and not the plain meaning of the text,” the opinion said.

The appeals court overturned a December 2018 ruling by Leon County Circuit Judge Charles Dodson, who said the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, which includes the highway patrol, was not entitled to sovereign immunity. Friday’s opinion also described the Hightower lawsuit as a “case of first impression” — or first of its kind — on the issue of whether sovereign immunity applies in such disputes.

The lawsuit said Hightower, a Jefferson County resident, enlisted in the Navy in 1986 and began working as a state law-enforcement officer in 1998. It said he was deployed in 2012, 2013 and 2014 and also volunteered to participate in funeral honor details.

It alleged that Hightower was harassed at the highway patrol because of time spent on military duty and received a low annual performance score in 2013 as retaliation for notifying his superiors about compliance with the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act. The lawsuit said, in part, that Hightower was denied a bonus because of the low score. It also alleged that he did not receive a potential promotion in 2014 because of the low score and a pending deployment.

“Plaintiff Hightower has been continuously harassed based on his service to the United States Navy Reserve, specifically regarding leave time he used to serve on funeral honor details and other military duties,” said an amended version of the lawsuit filed in 2018.

But in addition to arguing that the lawsuit should be blocked because of sovereign immunity, attorneys for the state disputed Hightower’s allegations. They argued in a 2015 court document that “there are insufficient facts to show that the plaintiff’s protected status was a motivating factor in any employment decision regarding plaintiff; and that there are insufficient facts to show that plaintiff sustained any damage for which he is entitled to recovery.”

(©2020 CBS Local Media. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The News Service of Florida’s Jim Saunders contributed to this report.)

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