On Wednesday, May 12, Suzann Nicholson was terminated from her position in the City of Miami Building Department effective immediately. The firing comes only weeks after she filed suit against Alex Diaz de la Portilla for defamation, alleging he had assaulted her while she was investigating an illegal late-night gathering and later intimidated her by saying she lied.
Nicholson was part of an operation with the Miami Police Department investigating an unpermitted party that was operating in violation of the county's COVID-19 curfew on February 21. In recounting the incident to New Times in early April, she said that when she asked someone at the event to tell her who could show her the permits, she was introduced to Diaz de la Portilla, who was standing in a VIP section.
Nicholson claims the commissioner poked and pushed her, causing her to step back awkwardly, wrenching her hip seriously enough to cause a sprain. Body-cam video of the event shows Diaz de la Portilla speaking to Nicholson, identifying himself as a city commissioner and saying he would call the city manager the following morning. Diaz de la Portilla denies all allegations of pushing or harming Nicholson. Body-cam footage released by the city does not show the alleged altercation between the two. Nicholson's attorneys say the cameras did not capture the entire interaction.
In her lawsuit, Nicholson also alleges that her then-supervisor, assistant director of code compliance Eric Nemons, instructed her to destroy photo evidence of the event after she told him Diaz de la Portilla had been present. According to the complaint, Nicholson claims Nemons told her, "We're supposed to keep our politicians safe."
In a termination letter she received from City Manager Art Noriega, Nicholson was informed that she was fired for insubordination after refusing to cooperate with a city investigation into her claims against Diaz de la Portilla and Nemons.
"You were directed to appear in the Department of Human Resources on May 10, 2021 at 11:00 a.m. to give an official statement regarding your allegations surrounding the events on February 21, 2021 in Allapattah while you were on duty. Your appearance was necessary for the City to continue its investigation into your claims that you were a victim in an alleged assault and your supervisor instructed you to destroy documents connected to your official duties," Noriega wrote.
In the letter, Noriega states that Nicholson intentionally failed to appear to give a statement to the city, and that she was guilty of being "wantonly offensive in conduct toward the public or City officers or employees." (A copy of this letter is embedded at the end of this article)
Nicholson was instructed on April 30 to provide an official statement to the city to support her claims about the incident at the party, and was told that failure to attend may lead to an "adverse employment action," according to a letter she received from Human Resources Director Angela Roberts.
One of Nicholson's attorneys, Matthew Baldwin, previously told New Times that they found it inappropriate for the city to investigate allegations against its own elected officials. Baldwin requested that Noriega turn over the investigation to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE). When he did not receive a response from Noriega, Baldwin contacted FDLE directly, and the agency has opened its own investigation into the incident.
On May 4, Baldwin emailed City Attorney Victoria Méndez, informing her that the city could not interview Nicholson without her attorney present, and that Baldwin would be out of town for a trial on that day. Méndez responded that the city administration would make itself available on weekends and evenings to meet with her at her convenience.
The next day, fearing the city may attempt to fire Nicholson, her attorneys filed a motion for a court order, asking a judge to shield Nicholson from adverse employment actions and to require that any statements from Nicholson take the form of depositions.
Before the court could set a hearing to review the motion, the city fired Nicholson.
Nicholson's other attorney, David Winker, tells New Times they intend to sue the city again, this time for wrongful termination, after they go through the requisite grievance process. Winker says he believes the city fired his client in an attempt to protect Diaz de la Portilla, and that the internal investigation was not undertaken in good faith.
"We were trying to set the parameters in court. I would've been a lot more comfortable going into that meeting on May 10 if the judge said they couldn't fire her," Winker says. "It's clearly bad faith on the city's part. Now we know they were in a rush to fire her."
In a statement to New Times via text, Diaz de la Portilla says he supports the administration's enforcement of rules on "decency and honesty" in their firing of Nicholson.
"There is no place in our city for dishonesty and deception. When employees make spurious accusations concerning the content of their official business the city can and must hold them accountable," Diaz de la Portilla says.