FORT WALTON BEACH — A judge has ruled that former Okaloosa County School Superintendent Mary Beth Jackson is not entitled to the $283,000 in legal fees she incurred fighting her suspension from office.
Oklaoosa County Circuit Judge William Stone issued an order late Tuesday granting the Okaloosa County School Board’s motion to dismiss Jackson’s claim.
The motion comes on the heels of a unanimous Dec. 18 School Board vote to settle a lawsuit by paying former school administrator Andy Johnson $62,978 in accrued salary and benefits.
Johnson was Jackson’s program director of student services, discipline and athletics. He was fired last Jan. 28 by Superintendent Marcus Chambers for providing "evasive and contradictory sworn testimony" to a grand jury investigating the School District as run by the Jackson administration.
The settlement pays him through June 30, 2019, the end of his employment contract, according to district spokesman Steve Horton.
Stone’s order in the Jackson case states her call for a judge to rule on a matter that would rightly fall under the purview of the Florida Senate violates Article II of the Florida Constitution. That article outlines the separation of power between the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government.
"Based upon the separation of powers doctrine, (the court) may not consider (Jackson’s) claims in this case," the ruling said. "Therefore, the defendant’s motion to dismiss should be granted."
Gov. Ron DeSantis suspended Jackson on Jan. 11 of last year. He said at the time she had shown negligence or incompetence in office and "failed in her responsibilities to the parents and students of Okaloosa County."
Jackson initially appealed her case to the Florida Supreme Court, which denied it, at least in part because the Florida Constitution provides the power to suspend elected officials to the governor and the right to try the appeals of suspended officials to the Senate.
The High Court determined in ruling against Jackson that the courts play "a limited role in reviewing the exercise of the suspension power," which the constitution "commits to the governor."
In his ruling, Stone wrote, "the Florida Senate may provide for the payment of attorney’s fees and costs ... "(Jackson’s) request for payment of attorney’s fees and costs incurred in contesting the suspension order is not properly before this Court."
The ruling stated that even if the separation of powers clause had not led him to dismiss Jackson’s claim, he would have done so based on the School Board argument that her complaint itself was legally insufficient.
Stone ruled Jackson’s claim for legal fees failed to show that her appeal of a gubernatorial suspension "served a public purpose."
Jackson’s attorneys had argued the School Board should reimburse her because "the governor determined it appropriate to reinstate (her) to her rightful position as Superintendent for Okaloosa County."
Stone determined that an order reinstating Jackson, signed by DeSantis in August, expressly stated the reinstatement was provided "in expectation of Mary Beth Jackson's imminent resignation" with the purpose of "allowing the school district to move forward with new leadership."
Documents verifying the governor’s intent directly contradicted the argument that DeSantis had determined Jackson’s reinstatement to have been appropriate, according to Nate Adams, the attorney who represented the School Board.
"Where a document on which the pleader relies in the complaint directly conflicts with the allegations of the complaint, the variance is fatal and the complaint is subject to dismissal," Stone wrote in his order, quoting previous court rulings.
Jackson filed her lawsuit seeking reimbursement of legal fees in August. She has 30 days to appeal Stone’s Tuesday decision.
"The case at the trial court level is over," Adams said. "Let’s hope for the sake of the taxpayers this will be the end of the matter."
An award of legal fees would have been particularly unfair, Adams said, because the Okaloosa County School Board "was not a party to any of these proceedings" surrounding Jackson’s suspension.
"The School Board thanks the Circuit Court for adhering strictly to the law," he said.