Duncan sues Sherman over firing

OKEECHOBEE — For William ‘Russ’ Duncan, it’s all about the truth. And, because of that, he has filed a lawsuit against his former employer William Sherman, the Okeechobee County property appraiser.

St. Petersburg attorney Timothy Weber filed the suit Thursday, Oct. 27, in the U.S. District Court in the Southern District of Florida in Miami.

That suit claims Mr. Duncan, 40, was fired by Mr. Sherman not long after announcing his intention to run for the property appraiser’s position that was coming open due to Mr. Sherman’s retirement.

Russ Duncan

Russ Duncan

Mr. Duncan, a graduate of Okeechobee High School, had worked in the property appraiser’s office for 12 years. He and his wife of 11 years, Christina, have a 6-year-old son and a 9-year-old daughter.

In essence, the 11-page suit claims Mr. Sherman was against Mr. Duncan’s run for the office because he wanted his assistant, Mickey Bandi, to win.

The suit alleges on Nov. 6, 2015, Sherman “… again called Plaintiff (Mr. Duncan) into his office and advised Plaintiff that Plaintiff was causing both Plaintiff and Mr. Bandi to lose the election by splitting the vote (allowing Sharon Wallace to get elected),” states the suit.

William Sherman

William Sherman

Mrs. Wallace is also running for the property appraiser’s position, as is Steve Cates.

In an Oct. 15, 2015, speech to the Okeechobee Board of Realtors Mr. Duncan said he felt the property appraiser’s office needed to upgrade its technology, training, transparency, leadership, effort and integrity.

On Oct. 19, 2015, Mr. Sherman reportedly told Mr. Duncan “… Plaintiff could not say anything negative about him or his office again and threatened to terminate Plaintiff if Plaintiff did not change his campaign speech,” claimed the suit.

“Bill flew off the handle because he thought I was attacking him,” said Mr. Duncan, in a Friday, Oct. 28, 2016, interview. “He really did not like the integrity statement.”

Mr. Duncan filed to run for office on Feb. 18, 2015.

“When I told him I was running for office, Bill said ‘I am the office’,” recalled Mr. Duncan.

On Feb. 19, 2015, the suit claims Mr. Sherman called Mr. Duncan into this office and said he was backing Mr. Bandi. He went on to allegedly say that Mr. Duncan would “… embarrass himself and his family, and that Plaintiff should drop out of the race,” noted the suit.

Mr. Duncan refused.

Later in 2015, continues the suit, Mr. Sherman told Mr. Duncan he could “… hurt (Plaintiff) 10 times more than (Plaintiff) could hurt him.” The longtime property appraiser then allegedly told Mr. Duncan he would be fired if he ever again attacked him.

The suit goes on to allege that Mr. Bandi tried to influence other employees in the office by claiming that Mr. Duncan was criticizing them.

“Sherman was aware of these comments and took no action against Mr. Bandi for involving other employees in his political campaign,” claimed the suit.

Mr. Bandi narrowly defeated Mr. Duncan in the Aug. 30, 2016, primary and, points out the lawsuit, Mr. Sherman kept the pressure on Mr. Duncan to back Mr. Bandi. According to the suit Mr. Sherman asked Mr. Duncan on Sept. 9 and Sept. 19 to back the assistant property appraiser. But, Mr. Duncan would not.

In September of 2016, Mr. Sherman allegedly started encouraging other employees in the office to put bumper stickers on their cars and to wear T-shirts in support of Mr. Bandi, outlined the suit. At least one employee declined and was threatened with termination, stated the court paperwork.

Mr. Duncan was fired Oct. 3.

Mr. Weber explained in a phone interview Friday the First Amendment lawsuit was filed to seek Mr. Duncan’s reinstatement to his job, to recoup lost wages and benefits and to repair the damage done to his client’s good standing in the community.

The First Amendment protects people from the government and their right to free speech, to engage in political campaigns and to associate with people.

“A public employer, the government, cannot punish you for engaging in First Amendment activities,” pointed out Mr. Weber. “Basically, the suit claims the employer retaliated against Mr. Duncan when he wouldn’t support Mr. Bandi.”

Mr. Bandi, added the attorney, is not included in the suit.

“At this point, we don’t know if Mr. Bandi had anything to do with the termination,” Mr. Weber said.

It should also be pointed out that, when contacted Friday, county attorney John Cassel said he was not aware of the lawsuit when asked if the county would hire an attorney for Mr. Sherman.

“He’s an independent constitutional officer and not employed by the county,” replied Mr. Cassel. “Of course, anything that affects his budget affects the county.”

Still, because he is a constitutional officer, Mr. Sherman will have to hire an attorney to represent him then pay for that representation out of the property appraiser’s budget.

The lawsuit is demanding a jury trial that will be held in a federal court, possibly Fort Pierce or West Palm Beach. Mr. Weber said it will probably be heard in about 18 months.

But, for Mr. Duncan, the suit is about one thing and one thing only — the truth.

“It’s really not about the money and it’s really not about getting my job back.

It’s really about getting the truth out,” he said. “The truth is: Bill Sherman used his position to try and influence me to not run and to influence the outcome of the election.

“That’s what it boils down to — he really wants Mickey to be the candidate,” Mr. Duncan added.

When contacted late Friday, Mr. Sherman said he had not been served and was not aware of the lawsuit. Because of that, he said he didn’t feel he could comment.

Mr. Bandi did not return a call seeking comment.

Eric Kopp is a staff writer for the Okeechobee News

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