A test revealed that the code enforcement officer had been drinking before she rear-ended another car in March 2002.
By SHANNON TAN
Published May 21, 2004
LARGO - A code enforcement officer who was driving a city-owned vehicle when she rear-ended another car will get an attorney to defend her against a suit brought by the other driver, courtesy of the city.
Joyce Homer, 61, was driving at Highland Avenue and East Bay Drive on the morning of March 28, 2002, when she rear-ended a car.
The police officer responding to the scene detected alcohol on Homer's breath. A postcrash test estimated that she had a blood-alcohol level of more than 0.04 percent at the time of the accident. The state's legal limit is 0.08 percent.
The driver of the car that was hit, Lucinda Rolfes, sued the city and Homer. Rolfes sustained about $400 damage to her car, while the city vehicle suffered $800 in damage.
City Attorney Alan Zimmet said the city would not provide Homer an attorney in the civil suit because she was "acting outside the scope of her employment" by driving under the influence of alcohol. Homer appealed.
This month, arbitrator John J. Popular II found that "the premise of the city's position in denying legal representation was an attempt to shoehorn "negligence' into the definition of "scope of work' using the 0.04 blood level as the standard for doing so."
City officials are considering appealing the ruling to Pinellas County Circuit Court.
In the meantime, the city will hire an attorney to represent Homer, Assistant City Manager Henry Schubert said.
"Next week, we will need to communicate with her how that's going to work," he said.
Homer, who has been working for the city since 1973, was suspended for five days without pay. During the arbitration hearing, Homer acknowledged that she had four or five drinks the night before.
"I've been driving for over 40 years," Homer said. "I've never had a DUI. I firmly believe (the accident) had nothing to do with an alcohol level because I was not legally alcohol impaired."
Tests showed that she had blood alcohol levels of 0.035 and 0.028 percent more than an hour after the crash. A police officer then estimated that Homer's blood alcohol level exceeded 0.04 percent at the time of the crash, violating Largo's drug-free workplace policy.
The officer who estimated Homer's blood-alcohol level at the time of the crash has not been an Intoxilyzer operator for several years.
"It was more of a guesstimate based on things he kind of remembered," said Stephen Sarnoff, president of the Communication Workers of America Local 3179, which represents Homer.
Sarnoff said the city is contractually obligated "to provide legal defense for employees when they're sued performing their work during their scope of employment."
Homer, who makes $38,584, received a certificate of excellence in customer service in 2002 and a positive job evaluation in 2003.
But in 1998, then-police Chief Jerry Bloechle fired Homer over a litany of charges that included disrespectful treatment of a supervisor, failure to provide customer service, and insubordination.
An arbitrator, however, ruled that the city had to reinstate her with back pay and benefits, reduced by a 120-day suspension without pay.
"We've had to arbitrate three different cases for this person," Sarnoff said. "This is the most we've had to defend for anybody in the city of Largo. I don't know what conclusion to draw from that."
Homer received written reprimands in 1998 and 2001 for disrespectful treatment of her colleagues. In 1995, she was involved in an accident while driving a city vehicle in which she was determined to be at fault.