The city of Key West erred in firing a veteran code enforcement officer last year over a still-pending allegation of homestead fraud, an independent arbitrator ruled Tuesday.
Gary Addleman is owed his job along with back pay and benefits, according to the decision.
Former City Manager Jim Scholl fired Addleman on March 15, 2012, after concluding he had compromised his professional reputation by claiming a false homestead exemption on his Stock Island mobile home.
"No matter how well intentioned the city may have been, it turned out to be grossly unfair to this 26-year employee with an outstanding record," the arbitrator, attorney Stuart Goldstein, wrote in the 13-page decision.
After Hurricane Wilma damaged his Ninth Avenue double-wide, Addleman spent more and more nights at his girlfriend's New Town home. An anonymous complaint led to the homestead fraud probe, although Addleman never rented out the trailer and kept up with utility bills and the lawn.
Addleman said at the labor hearing that he didn't live at the property much between 2010 and 2012, but the address stayed his "home" on licenses, car registrations and voter records.
"That an owner does not live on a piece of property does not necessarily mean the property is not his 'permanent residence,'" Goldstein wrote.
It was unclear when Addleman would be back on the city's payroll or how much he is owed for losing 14 months of work, his attorney, Bob Goldman, said.
"We won," Goldman said. "If the parties cannot agree, if we can't reach agreement with the city, I guess we will litigate."
Addleman had to follow the collective bargaining agreement the city has with the Teamsters union, although he is not a Teamster.
The Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service decision vindicated Addleman, saying he was wrongly fired, and cast serious doubt on the homestead fraud allegation.
"He doesn't have another job and it's been very difficult for him," said Goldman. "But he is thrilled."
The arbitrator said the city jumped the gun on Addleman.
The city couldn't prove just cause for the firing, wrote Goldstein. Addleman, a Code Compliance supervisor in 2012, refused to sign the termination letter. He fought the decision with Goldman, who enlisted his old law partner, attorney Jim Baker of Springfield, Ill., who travels Midwest federal circuits handling employment law.
The case culminated in a daylong trial in which the city called four witnesses and presented eight exhibits.
"The city focused incorrectly on where [Addleman] was living, and for how long, rather than on" the legal test that determines homestead fraud in Florida, the arbitrator ruled.
The conclusions of the county property appraiser's homestead investigator, Randy Pekarik, and the city's subsequent argument, "are flawed," the decision said.
Pekarik testified for the city at Addleman's hearing, saying in order to maintain a legitimate claim for a homestead exemption, Addleman should have obtained a building permit from the county and started rebuilding between 2006 and 2009.
Not so, Goldstein said, because the mobile home was never deemed "uninhabitable."
Addleman has said he intends to repair the home when he retires.