CHIPLEY - A $10,000 settlement agreement has been reached in a federal lawsuit that alleged the Washington County Clerk of Court's office violated civil rights following a controversial social media post.
The suit, filed last November by attorney Tiffany R. Cruz of Tallahassee on behalf of plaintiff Brandy Gramling, named Washington County Clerk of Court Lora C. Bell and Clerk Executive Assistant Shawna Faison as defendants in both their individual and official capacities.
The suit alleged Gramling's rights were violated when she was banned from the Washington County Clerk of Court's Facebook page after she posted a comment objecting to a photo on the site, a comment the complaint states was deleted, which "compounded the violation of free speech."
"Gramling commented on the disturbing post only to discover a few minutes later that her comment had been deleted," read the complaint. "Gramling further noticed other users' comments were also deleted from the post. Thereafter, Grambling discovered that she had been completely banned from posting on the clerk's page ...; Notably, the clerk removed all comments that opposed the post; however retained all comments that supported the post."
The Facebook page was not available to the public by the end of that business day, but Faison stated the page was not deleted as alleged in the complaint, just merely suspended.
The Clerk of Court's assertion that a complete history of Facebook posts were unavailable led Cruz to file a second suit against the clerk's office, alleging the "unlawful withholding of public records."
Cruz filed a request for records from the period of Oct. 20-25, 2016 that called for all posts from the Facebook page, including the activity log, comments, likes, shares, any deleted posts, message threads, a copy of blocked users and messages, and any emails or notifications sent from Facebook to the email account associated with the page.
That complaint states Cruz's request for the public records was not fully fulfilled and that the clerk's office violated its duty when it refused to provide her with a complete response.
"The Washington County Clerk of Court's refusal to provide … copies of the requested records constitutes an unlawful and unreasonable withholding or refusal of access to records as contemplated by Florida Public Records Law," read the complaint.
The clerk's office ultimately agreed to a settlement of $750 in the public records suit.
Once received, the records reflected Gramling had been blocked from the page, an action the civil rights suit states violated her Constitutional rights by "silencing her commentary" and denying her right under Florida's Constitution to "access any public record made or received in official business of any public body, officer, or employee of the state."
"The Clerk of Court's office blatantly violated the public records law," said Cruz. "I had to file a suit just to obtain the records needed to perform my due diligence for my client. Both settlements were very low, and the office is fortunate that Ms. Grambling is reasonable. This wasn't about money; this was about a public entity withholding public records and denying public access."
The clerk's office was responsive Thursday when the Washington County News requested records from the secondary suit filed by Cruz and released a statement explaining that the $10,000 settlement was reached in an effort to be mindful of county resources.
"The decision to resolve the case was based on a number of factors, but primary among them all was the evaluation of the best use of the resources and funds entrusted to this office by the citizens of Washington County," stated the Clerk of Court's office in the emailed statement. "While we dispute Ms. Gramling’s claims and do not believe any violation of law occurred, our final decision was motivated by the desire to dedicate those resources and funds to the efficient operation of this office, instead of litigation costs likely to be in excess of the resolution."
The statement went on to stress the Clerk of Court's office believes every citizen should have appropriate access to the courts to address disputes.
"That process is one of the great parts of our democracy. Therefore, we do not oppose Ms. Gramling or anyone else proceeding with a lawsuit if believed to be necessary," stated the office. "In this case specifically, we do not believe that Ms. Gramling’s claims presented sufficient information to demonstrate a violation of law and that, if necessary, we would have been able to demonstrate that to the court. However, Ms. Gramling, like every litigant, is entitled to have a court address his or her disputes, if required."
Bell and Faison were collectively represented by attorneys Jason Curtis Taylor of Tallahassee and Timothy M Warner and William G Warner, both of Panama City.
The $10,000 settlement and Clerk of Court's representation will be covered by the county's insurer, Florida Municipal Insurance Trust.
The $750 settlement was paid with county funds.