Katherine Murphy
Katherine Murphy ()

Katherine Murphy, the fired principal of Aventura City of Excellence School, faces an uphill struggle in getting the Third District Court of Appeal to reinstate a $155 million jury award.

The court heard oral arguments Tuesday and appeared unconvinced she could overcome the absolute privilege protection against defamation that was afforded to City Manager Eric Soroka.

Soroka fired Murphy in 2006, allegedly for taking bribes to permit students to circumvent the charter school’s lottery system for entry to the popular city-owned school.

Murphy was an internationally renowned, award-winning educator. She claimed her health suffered from public humiliation and she never returned to the education field.

Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Rosa Rodriguez presided over the 2012 defamation trial. Rodriguez set aside the jury award on grounds the evidence could not overcome Soroka’s immunity defense.

Third District Judge Leslie Rothenberg defended Rodriguez’s decision, saying defamatory language coming from a public official is protected speech if it occurs within the scope of employment.

“The case law seems unequivocal. These are threshold issues. Absolute privilege must be determined by the trial court, not the jury,” Rothenberg said.

Roy D. Wasson of Wasson & Associates Chartered in Miami argued a waiver of the rule was allowed and the jury award should be reinstated.

The panel, which also included Judges Thomas Logue and Richard Suarez, asked Wasson at what point did Soroka stepped outside the scope of his duties with his comments.

Wasson said Soroka did when he spoke to the Miami Herald.

“It may have been within the scope of employment to talk to the parents but not within the scope to talk to the Herald?” Suarez asked.

Wasson replied, “That’s right, that had nothing to do with administration of Aventura government.”

Wasson tried to argue Soroka’s speech was so outrageous that he intended not only to ruin Murphy in Aventura, but worldwide.

“But the case law doesn’t say that,” Rothenberg countered. “It doesn’t matter how malicious, it doesn’t matter how false it is. There are two things we look at solely: Was it a public official and was it made within the scope of his duties?”

Soroka’s attorney, Michael Burke of Johnson, Anselmo, Murdoch, Burke, Piper & Hochman in Fort Lauderdale, disputed Wasson’s claim that the judge allowed a waiver of the absolute privilege issue. Burke said the judge chose instead to defer the motion until after trial.

Burke spent much of his time emphasizing Soroka’s alleged verbal abuse did not meet the state threshold for workplace harassment since one cause of action on the verdict form dealt with intentional infliction of emotional distress. Soroka regularly insulted Murphy, most often with the use of sexually derogatory words, according to the court record.

Burke claimed Soroka would have to do more in the workplace than just use inflammatory language to be liable. He would have to get physical.

“I don’t agree with you that case law requires physical touching along with verbal abuse,” Rothenberg said.

The judges appeared sympathetic to Murphy but stymied by the high bar set in case law for overcoming a government official’s immunity. Rothenberg said there should be some remedy for Murphy. Logue noted the jury was clearly unhappy with Soroka’s conduct.

Miami attorney Ben Kuehne, speaking on rebuttal for Murphy, argued Soroka could be viewed as acting beyond the scope of his employment if the court agreed he acted as if he were an officer of Charter Schools USA Inc.

The city contracted with Charter Schools USA to operate the school “in all capacities,” Kuehne said.

“What were the statements made, and what were the context of the statements?” Kuehne asked. “He doesn’t talk about a city employee. He talks about others who are not within his scope.”

Logue questioned who had authority to fire Murphy. Kuehne said Soroka did.

“If the city manager can fire the principal, then statements made seem to be within the scope of his employment,” Logue said.