The Third DCA recently issued an opinion dealing with the doctrine of failure to exhaust administrative remedies—a doctrine that traps many unsuspecting litigants. The case is Jackson Health System v. Louis, an original proceeding for writ of prohibition.
Louis filed a whistle-blower action against Jackson Health, alleging he was terminated after submitting reports of employee misconduct. The problem for Louis is that, regardless of the merit to his claims, he filed his action in Circuit Court.
Importantly, under Section 112.3187(8)(b), Florida Statutes, a whistle-blower action must be filed with the appropriate local governmental authority within 60 days of termination if that authority has established a procedure for handling such actions. As it happens, Jackson Health has an ordinance establishing the procedure for handling whistle-blower actions. Under the ordinance, an employee must file an action within 60 days of termination.
After Louis filed his complaint in circuit court, more than 60 days after his termination, Jackson Health petitioned the Third DCA for a writ of prohibition, claiming the circuit court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over the action. The Third DCA agreed with Jackson Health and granted the petition.
This case provides a stark reminder that when a statute provides for administrative review, that review must typically be exhausted before seeking judicial review. And although many people do not equate the failure to exhaust administrative remedies with municipal government agencies, this case reaffirms the principle that the doctrine applies to local agencies as well as to state agencies.
As a final thought, the purpose of the doctrine is typically to defer to agency expertise. One may question the need for government deference in a whistle-blower action, where the government likely does not have expertise and where the complaining party is bringing serious allegations against the government entity.
The need for the doctrine is also questionable given the recent constitutional amendment abolishing agency deference. Article V, Section 21 of the Florida Constitution, now authorizes state courts to interpret agency statutes or rules de novo, meaning the courts need not defer to the agency’s interpretation. Although the need for the doctrine is questionable, if a statute provides for administrative review, then the best course is to follow the statutory guidelines.
Jonathan Taylor is an associate attorney with The Law Offices of Moffa, Sutton, & Donnini, P.A. Mr. Taylor concentrates in the areas of Florida tax appeals and general administrative appeals. Mr. Taylor also volunteers with Guardian ad Litem to handle appellate matters.