AVON PARK – The case involving the City of Avon Park against former Avon Park Police Chief Michael Rowen has taken another step closer to going to jury trial.
In addition, another judge in the case has been recused, to declare that the judge should not try a case or is disqualified to act, the second since the case was first filed.
Following a May 12 Case Management Conference involving the council and litigants, Judge Robert Fegers of the Tenth Judicial Circuit Court ordered a trial date be taken “under advisement” before the actual trial date be assigned.
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. 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.
These activities, according to a Sept. 6, 2011 letter from City Manager Julian Deleon, included “insubordination or the refusal to perform work assigned, or to comply with written or verbal instructions of a Supervisor; threatening, intimidating, coercing, or interfering with fellow employees or supervision at any time; on or off the job conduct which adversely affects the ability of the employee to perform his duties and/or adversely affects the efficient operation of the City government or any department or area of City government; and division, or area of City government; discourteous, insulting, abusive, or inflammatory language or conduct toward the public or coworkers.”
When a trial date is “taken under advisement,” it means the judge is going to consider the matter, read the legal briefs filed by the parties, have a clerk do some research on the legal issues and then eventually come to a ruling: it is a formal way of the judge saying he’ll get back to the parties.
In addition, Judge Peter Estrada was recused from hearing the case Feb. 12 after Rowan and the City requested the Tenth Judicial Circuit Court disqualify him from presiding due to “substantial relationships” with “numerous anticipated witnesses.
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.
The case was reassigned by Chief Circuit Judge Bruce Smith to County Court Judge Robert Fegers and finally to Jeffrey McKibben, a county judge for the Hardee County Court of Florida.
Once set, the trial would be held in Sebring.
In a May 12 order, Fegers mandated all “discovery” - the pretrial phase in a lawsuit when each party, through the law of civil procedure, can obtain evidence from the opposing party - and pretrial motions be completed by Dec. 15.
Highlands County Clerk of Courts Bob Germaine said if the case goes to jury trial, it would probably take place at the latest in Feb. 2015 but as soon as the beginning of Jan. 2015, depending on McKibben’s docket and schedule,
Rowan’s Lakeland-based attorney Robert Grizzard II, speculated late January or February for the trial’s start date and the change of judge shouldn’t affect the proceedings after discovery is closed.
“I’m eager to move forward and I’m certain so is Mike Rowan. I’m hoping we’re heading to closure,” he said Thursday.
Deleon, who suspended Rowan with pay by April 19, 2011, said despite the length of the case - over three years - a conclusion is in sight. He said even if it goes on another six months, he is “standing ready.”
“I am standing committed and I regularly check with our lawyers to ensure that we are doing everything possible to get to court,” Deleon wrote in an email. “I really like our arguments; I think we have very strong arguments. I think that our track record speaks for itself. We have not lost anything. I regularly check with our lawyers to ensure that we are doing everything possible to get to court. I am not in favor of settling (any) of these employment related cases. I am of the opinion that any type of settlement encourages more of the same.”