AVON PARK - Two cases pending in the circuit court involving the City of Avon Park have had directive action taken over the past two weeks.
According to the Highlands County Clerk of Courts, an order granting parties joint motion to disqualify Judge Peter Estrada from the job suspension lawsuit filed by former Avon Park Police Chief was made Feb. 17 and an order setting pretrial conference and jury trial has been set regarding a case involving Avon Park's former finance director.
Former Avon Park Police Chief Michael Rowan filed suit against the city of Avon Park June 16, 2011, after he was suspended with pay by Avon Park City Manager Julian Deleon April 19, 2011. His pay was stopped in June 2011 after it was found Rowan had investigated the mayor, deputy mayor, city project manager and a councilman for alleged illegal activities.
Feb. 12, Rowan and the city requested the Tenth Judicial Circuit Court disqualify Judge Peter Estrada from presiding due to "substantial relationships" with "numerous anticipated witnesses. The motion stated during a case management conference in January to discuss the pretrial and trial schedule, Estrada told the parties he saw the trial witness list, which included State Attorney Jerry Hill, Assistant State Attorney Steve Houchin, Highlands County Sheriff Susan Benton and Avon Park Council members Terry Heston and Parke Sutherland.
Estrada asked the parties to discuss with the litigants his relationship with the witnesses and to file "an appropriate disqualification motion if the parties deemed it appropriate." The motion stated clients from both parties indicated the potential for a conflict of interest existed and the "disqualification of Judge Estrada is warranted."
Avon Park City Manager Julian Deleon said both parties were aware that Estrada personally knows "many of the people on both sides" and no matter what the outcome of the trial, whoever lost could blame Estrada's personal affiliations as the cause.
"It's a small town with everyone knowing each other. Why put yourself in that picture?" he said.
A replacement judge hadn't been decided by Friday.
In addition, a trial date has been set beginning for 9 a.m., Nov. 10, in the Highlands County Courthouse regarding a lawsuit filed by former Avon Park Finance Director Renee Green against the city of Avon Park. A pretrial conference was held Oct. 30.
The lawsuit against the city - filed Feb. 21, 2012 by Green and her attorney, Robert Grizzard II - claimed there was no "just cause" for Deleon to terminate Renee Green after she served as the city's finance director for more than 10 years.
A complaint filed by Grizzard in 2012 stated in April 2010, Deleon began protesting purchasing procedures and the role that Green had in the process. It stated Deleon sent purchase orders to Green without proper documentation; objected to her cash management delay of one month for a purchase; questioned the practice and policy for budget "rollovers"; and wrote at least one offensive memo to the then-city manager concerning Green and proposed spending that had not been budgeted,
The complaint stated actions by Deleon and others on behalf of the city caused damages to Green, including mental anguish, loss of income, denigration of her business reputation and loss of benefits, the complaint states.
Deleon said he expects the city to prevail against Green, similar to when a lawsuit was filed against the city but an arbitrator sided with the city and in December dismissed allegations by union American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 3597 Vice-President Sally Perry over personnel dismissal issues.
"On Green's case, just like Perry's lawsuit which was recently dismissed from court, we believe that Green's case could face the same fate. The case is flawed." he said. "So far, we have enjoyed a good winning streak while prevailing in all complaints filed. Like in all past cases, if we prevail, we will pursue attorney's fees and costs. We are ready for action."
Over the past three years, the city of Avon Park has had seven cases against it dismissed voluntarily or by order of the court.
"It's set for trial and we're going to proceed. I don't pursue cases I don't think are winnable," said Grizzard. "We'll put it before a judge and jury and see how it turns out."