VERDICT: Jury rejects claim prosecutor was fired because of cancer

Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg is on the stand on Friday, October 28, 2016 in a lawsuit where he is accused of improperly firing Assistant State Attorney Angela Miller while Miller was undergoing cancer treatment. (Joseph Forzano / The Palm Beach Post)
Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg is on the stand on Friday, October 28, 2016 in a lawsuit where he is accused of improperly firing Assistant State Attorney Angela Miller while Miller was undergoing cancer treatment. (Joseph Forzano / The Palm Beach Post)

UPDATE 2:48 p.m.: It took a Palm Beach County jury just over two hours Tuesday to decide in favor of the Palm Beach County State Attorney’s office in a lawsuit from a former prosecutor who said she was fired because she had cancer.

The verdict comes nearly two weeks after the trial in Angela Miller’s case began, featuring testimony from current Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg and three of his predecessors, along with several others in the legal community who worked with Miller during her 16-year stint at the office.

Attorneys for Aronberg’s office told jurors that all Aronberg did was exercise his right not to retain Miller when he took office, a decision that had already been in the making before Miller’s diagnosis in August 2012.

“We’re pleased with the jury’s verdict, and we feel justice has been served,” Aronberg said through spokesman Mike Edmondson after the verdict Tuesday.

Miller, a mother of two who tearfully told jurors on the witness stand that she was still undergoing chemotherapy when she learned she was being let go, said she was glad she pursued the case despite the outcome.

“It was critical for me to tell my story, because this is happening to someone else right now, as we’re talking, someone is being terminated right now because they’re sick. And it’s a story that has to be told,” Miller said.

Miller said she will be talking to her attorneys, Cathleen Scott and Lindsey Wagner, to decide whether she will appeal the case. Five months after she wasn’t retained at the state attorney’s office, Miller got a job at the Boca Raton commercial litigation firm Sachs, Sax and Caplan, where she remains today.

Defense attorney James Williams reminded jurors Tuesday that despite Aronberg’s decision not to keep Miller, he encouraged a partner the firm to hire her.

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ORIGINAL POST: Four women and two men have now begun deciding whether Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg wrongfully terminated former Assistant State Attorney Angela Miller in 2012 because she had cancer.

Lawyers of both sides of Miller’s lawsuit against her former employers are now delivering their closing arguments, ending the trial that began earlier this month and featured testimony from top politicians, judges and lawyers in Palm Beach County’s legal community.

Miller’s attorney, Cathleen Scott, reminded jurors that all who testified during the trial characterized Miller as a great trial attorney. Miller, diagnosed with cancer in August 2012, found out in December that Aronberg would not be swearing her in as one of his assistants when he took office in January 2013.

Scott balked at suggestions from Aronberg’s testimony while on the witness stand last week comparing his takeover at the state attorney’s’ office to a coach taking over a sports team and making changes to the coaching staff.

“This isn’t football, this isn’t baseball. This is somebody’s life,” Scott said, later adding: “The law doesn’t allow it, and neither should you.”

Defense attorney James Williams’ position to jurors has been that Miller wasn’t asked to stay on with Aronberg in spite of her cancer diagnosis, not because of it.

He reiterated concerns Aronberg and others said they had about Miller’s actions outside of the courtroom, including allegations that she berated a juror in 2010 for voting to acquit a murder suspect and broke the law in the summer of 2012 when asked an investigator to search an FBI database for personal reasons.

Williams told jurors that they would have to believe 11 lawyers, a doctor and three law enforcement officers would have had to have participated in an orchestrated cover-up in order for jurors to believe Miller’s version of why she was let go.

Though Miller’s cancer diagnosis was tragic, Williams said, her anger with Aronberg and the state attorney’s office is misplaced.

“It can’t be, ‘I can do anything I want, and now because I’m sick, they can’t do anything to me. That’s not how the law works,” Williams said, adding later: “To do it that way would encourage a lot of bad behavior.”

The last arguments jurors heard Tuesday was from Scott, who had harsh criticism for Aronberg and accused him of being more concerned with placating “his defense attorney donor buddies” than with prosecuting criminal defendants.

Scott compared Miller to Brian Fernandes, a chief assistant state attorney under Aronberg who as a statewide prosecutor was responsible for handling gang cases and other violent crimes.

“He’s a tough prosecutor, just like Ms. Miller,” Scott said. “Let’s hope he doesn’t get sick.”

Circuit Judge Donald Hafele sent jurors sback to deliberate at noon.

State Attorney Dave Aronberg to testify in suit from dismissed lawyer

Former Assistant State Attorney Angela Miller sits in court during a break Tuesday, October 25, 2016. Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg is accused of improperly firing Miller while she was undergoing cancer treatment. (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)
Former Assistant State Attorney Angela Miller sits in court during a break Tuesday, October 25, 2016. Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg is accused of improperly firing Miller while she was undergoing cancer treatment. (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)

Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg is expected to take the stand Thursday to answer a lawsuit from a former prosecutor who claims she was fired shortly after Aronberg was elected because she had cancer.

Angela Miller, who was once the Palm Beach State Attorney’s office White Collar Crimes Unit chief, found out in December 2012 that Aronberg would not be keeping her on after Aronberg officially took office in January 2013. At the time, Miller was undergoing chemotherapy following a surgery for breast cancer.

Miller sued, claiming she was fired because Aronberg and others deemed her a liability due to her illness. Aronberg and other officials say Miller was merely not retained with the new administration – a prospect every Assistant State Attorney faces whenever a new top prosecutor takes office.

Testimony in the trial began last week and has already featured appearances by some of Miller’s former colleagues at the State Attorney’s Office, including former State Attorney Michael McAuliffe and two of his former chief assistants, Paul Zacks and Jill Richstone.

Dave Aronberg, seen here at an unrelated press conference on Oct. 25, 2016, is expected to testify in a trial for a lawsuit from a former prosecutor who says he fired her while she was undergoing cancer treatment.
Dave Aronberg, seen here at an unrelated press conference on Oct. 25, 2016, is expected to testify in a trial for a lawsuit from a former prosecutor who says he fired her while she was undergoing cancer treatment.

Miller took the stand Tuesday and remained there until Wednesday afternoon, breaking down in tears several times, including when describing how then interim State Attorney Peter Antonacci told her in December 2012 that she wouldn’t be retained under the new administration.

“I was fired because I have cancer,” Miller said later. “I was damaged goods. Who wants someone who is bald and has no eyelashes?”

At least one of Aronberg’s top assistants has testified that he didn’t know of Miller’s cancer diagnosis until after the decision had been made to let her go.

Chief Assistant State Attorney Brian Fernandes, who was part of Aronberg’s transitional team before Aronberg officially took office in January, said he agreed with the decision not to keep Miller on staff after he learned in a November 2012 meeting that there was a claim that she had improperly used an FBI database to conduct a search for personal reasons. Fernandes described the incident as a serious violation that could have caused the entire office to lose access to the database.

Miller’s attorney, Cathleen Scott, questioned Fernandes about a note he made during what he said was a subsequent meeting. The note indicated that Miller had cancer, and the team did not want to keep her, but Fernandes told jurors the cancer notation had nothing to do with the decision not to retain her.

After Miller left the office, Aronberg dropped charges against the defendant in one of Miller’s last high-profile cases. Suncoast High School band director Ernest Brown once faced charges that he ran up debts on band accounts for school trips to Europe and used band money to take relatives on a trip.

A February 2013 memo from the state attorney’s office following the dropped charges was critical of prosecutors for pushing forward with a case they allegedly couldn’t prove and charging Brown with crimes for which the statute of limitations had passed.

A month later, prosecutors dropped fraud charges against Palm Beach jewelry store owner Vernon Lee Havens. This time, they  alleged outright that Miller had committed prosecutorial misconduct.

On the witness stand, Miller said she believed that Brown’s case was dismissed in part because Brown’s attorney, Michael Salnick, and former state attorney and Aronberg transitional team member Barry Krisher were friends.

Havens’ case, she said, was a further attempt to besmirch her character, knowing she was planning to sue.

“I do believe that it was a way to take a shot at me in the paper and say: ‘look at her, look at how stupid she is,'” Miller said.

Later, another Chief Assistant State Attorney, Alan Johnson, testified that he,  Krisher and others in the office met periodically for lunch gatherings that would inevitably turn into gripe sessions about the state of the office under McAuliffe, who had promoted Miller during his three years in office.

It was there, Johnson said, that another attorney began to complain about Zacks and Miller. Johnson said Aronberg later began attending those lunch sessions, and added that he told Aronberg of complaints bout Miller before he took office.

After McAuliffe left office early in 2012 and Antonacci was appointed as a temporary replacement, Miller said he constantly pestered her, calling and emailing her about cases while she was trying to recover from surgery and while undergoing chemotherapy.

“I told him that the people that I had left in place were more than capable of answering whatever questions he had, but he kept saying it was my unit, it was my unit,” Miller said. “He never gave me a break.”

Ex-Dolphin trainer, fired in bullying scandal, must seek arbitration in dispute

An appeals court on Thursday ruled that a defamation lawsuit filed against the Miami Dolphins by the team’s former head trainer in the wake of the team’s bullying scandal should be decided by an NFL arbitration panel, not a Palm Beach County circuit judge.

010211 (Allen Eyestone/The Palm Beach Post ) FOXBORO, FL ...GILLETTE STADIUM.. New England Patriots vs Miami Dolphins...Miami Dolphins quarterback Chad Henne (7) walks off the field with athletic trainer Kevin O'Neill following the Dolphins 38-7 loss to the Patriots. Henne may have suffered a concussion during the game.
Miami Dolphins quarterback Chad Henne (7) walks off the field with athletic trainer Kevin O’Neill following the Dolphins 38-7 loss to the Patriots in 2011.

Without comment, the 4th District Court of Appeal agreed with a lower court that Kevin O’Neill, who claims he was used as a scapegoat in the 2013 scandal that rocked the sports world, is contractually obligated to let an arbitration panel decide whether his claims are true.

The West Palm Beach-based appeals court upheld a 2015 ruling by Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Donald Hafele. He ruled that O’Neill 10 times signed contracts that required that disputes be decided by arbitration.

Hafele also rejected O’Neill’s assertion that he wouldn’t get a fair hearing because the arbitration would be controlled by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. The judge noted that Goodell appointed Jay Moyer, a former NFL general counsel and executive vice president, to represent him.

While attorney Jack Scarola, who represents the former trainer, continued to insist that arbitration amounts to a “kangaroo court where the NFL has its thumb on the scales of justice,” he said he accepted the ruling. “The O’Neills and I have beaten worse odds in the past and we intend to do it again,” he said.

O’Neill was sharply criticized in a 144-page report Goodell commissioned after Dolphins lineman Jonathan Martin left the team, claiming he was subject to unrelenting racial epithets by fellow lineman Richie Incognito. Report author, attorney Ted Wells, claimed O’Neill refused to cooperate with those investigating Martin’s claims that team officials ignored his pleas to rein in locker room bullies.

Scarola,said O’Neill was bound by patient privacy. Instead of talking to O’Neill, the Dophins fired him along with former offensive line coach Jim Turner, Scarola claimed. Incognito was also released by the team.

O’Neill, who was fired weeks after being named NFL trainer of the year, is seeking an unspecified amount in damages.