County Cannot Use “Non-Existent Regulation” To Terminate Corrections Officer

Pamela Williams has been employed as a corrections officer for Miami-Dade County, Florida for 16 years. For the last three years of her employment, Williams lived with Clifford Roberson, who was a convicted felon on parole.

In 2004, the Department of Corrections terminated Williams for violating two Department rules. The first, entitled “Associating with Criminal Elements,” provides that “no employee, except in the discharge of their lawful duties, may knowingly associate with persons engaged in unlawful activities.” The second rule, entitled “Inmates,” prohibits employees from “maintaining or developing close, personal, intimate or sexual relationships with inmates that the employee became acquainted with while the inmates were in the Department’s custody.” The rule further requires the employee to notify his supervisor of a personal relationship between an inmate and the employee.

Williams contested her termination through an appeal to the Florida Court of Appeals. Finding that Williams’ case involved a “violation of a clearly-established legal principle that resulted in a miscarriage of justice,” the Court overturned her termination.

The Court faulted the Department for the lack of applicability of the two rules it cited to discharge Williams. The Court reasoned that “the factual charges brought against an officer must be contemplated by the regulations under which she is charged and there must be some record foundation supporting the action taken. The law is equally clear that when an officer is discharged for conduct not precisely written into a department rule, the rule must not be of a character which is so amorphous that men of common intelligence must guess at its meaning.”

With respect to the “Associating with Criminal Elements” regulation, the Court found that the “Department presented no evidence that Roberson was engaged in unlawful activity. Absent any facts in the record to support that charge, we must reverse the termination.”

The Court then turned to the second of the two rules, the “Inmates” regulation. The Court found the rule “only applies to relationships between employees and ‘inmates.’ The regulation says nothing about relationships between employees and individuals no longer incarcerated by the Department. No reasonable person could review the provisions at issue and know that cohabitating with a former felon – especially absent evidence that the employee knew that the former felon was involved in criminal activity – would be a cause for automatic termination.”

The Court concluded its opinion with the comment that “we find it was a departure from the essential requirements of law to affirm the termination of Williams on the basis of a non-existent regulation.”

Williams v. Miami-Dade County, 2007 WL 2119047(Fla.App. 2007).

This article appears in the September 2007 issue