Tallahassee – Developers are increasingly suing individual state environmental workers personally as a way to leverage approval of construction permits, according to records released today by Florida Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (Florida PEER). A pledge by a top official of the Jeb Bush administration to seek legislative relief from retaliatory lawsuits against state workers has been effectively dishonored.
At least 15 lawsuits have been filed against state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) employees since 1988; most of those in just the past five years. Almost half have been filed by a single “property rights” lawyer on behalf of development interests whose building plans were held up or were the subject of enforcement for environmental reasons. These suits are filed against DEP employees as individuals, tying up personal assets and complicating home purchases or refinancing for the workers and their families. In several cases, lawsuits filed against an employee were still pursued against the family’s estates after the employee’s death.
“Florida public employees put their family’s financial future at risk simply by doing their jobs of protecting the environment,” commented Steve Medina, General Counsel for Florida PEER and a former DEP lawyer. “It is outrageous that DEP and the Bush Administration are not taking the steps needed to protect their own employees.”
On April 5, 1999, DEP Secretary David Struhs made a highly publicized pledge to seek legislation discouraging retaliatory lawsuits against government employees. Despite that pledge, DEP did not aggressively pursue the recommended relief legislation drafted by its own staff lawyers.
“The irony is that these suits allege bad faith on the part of the individual DEP employee yet the truly bad faith has been shown by the DEP itself in leaving its own employees out to dry,” added Medina. “The chilling effect on DEP permit writers is palpable – knowing that if they cite an environmental problem with a project proposed by an aggressive developer their lives could be hell.”