Code Officer Sues Miami Commissioner for Libel After Incident at Illegal Party

Body-cam footage from February 21 shows Miami city commissioner Alex Diaz de la Portilla at an unlicensed nightclub.
Body-cam footage from February 21 shows Miami city commissioner Alex Diaz de la Portilla at an unlicensed nightclub. Screenshot from Miami Police Department body-camera footage
A City of Miami employee who has accused a city commissioner of injuring her at an illegal party is now suing him for defamation.

Earlier this month, Miami code compliance inspector Suzann Nicholson went public with her claim that City Commissioner Alex Diaz de la Portilla had physically assaulted her.

Nicholson told New Times that she was investigating reports of an illegal party at a building in Allapattah alongside officers from the Miami Police Department. In the early morning hours of February 21, the venue, located at 772 NW 22nd St., was hosting an unpermitted event called "Museum Miami" that continued to rage after Miami-Dade County's midnight curfew.

Nicholson told New Times that when she asked a person in charge of the party for the club's license and its event permit, she was introduced to Diaz de la Portilla, who was standing in a VIP section and identified himself to her as a city commissioner.

Nicholson alleged that during her conversation with Diaz de la Portilla, the commissioner began poking and pushing her, leading her to step back. In doing so, she told New Times earlier this month, she twisted her hip, causing an injury that required medical attention.

Diaz de la Portilla denied that he pushed or poked Nicholson. After police body-camera footage was released that did not show any physical contact between commissioner and Nicholson, he told New Times and other news outlets that Nicholson was lying in order to file a fraudulent worker's compensation claim.

"There is no substitute for the truth and Ms. Nicholson is clearly lying. This video proves there's not an ounce of truth to her story. A fraudulent workman's compensation claim is not a reason to try and ruin someone's good name," Diaz de la Portilla texted New Times at the time. "Ms. Nicholson should be terminated immediately for her misdeeds, defamation, and fraud."

That statement is now at the heart of a libel suit Nicholson has filed against Diaz De la Portilla. In the complaint, Nicholson accuses the commissioner of lying and defaming her in an act of intimidation.

In a complaint filed on Wednesday in Miami-Dade circuit court, Nicholson restated her original allegations against Diaz de la Portilla, asserting that the account of the night she gave to New Times was accurate. According to the complaint, Nicolson submitted to two separate polygraph tests that determined she was being truthful when she said that Diaz de la Portilla put his hands on her, causing her to injure her hip. (Polygraph tests have been deemed inadmissible in court in most states, including Florida, and some experts doubt their reliability.)

The complaint alleges that Diaz de la Portilla's statement to media outlets, in which he accused Nicholson of lying and defaming him, was defamatory and untrue, and that the commissioner intentionally lied to defame Nicholson and silence her.

"At the time the Defendant published these statements, he made them fraudulently and in bad faith, with the intent to silence or intimidate [Nicholson] from cooperating with law enforcement or pursuing other legal remedies against [Diaz de la Portilla] or other wrongdoers related to events of the night at issue," the complaint states. (A copy of the complaint is attached at the end of this article.)

Nicholson's attorney, Matthew Baldwin, points out that the body-camera footage released by the Miami Police Department does not show the entire interaction between Nicholson and Diaz de la Portilla.

"The video footage we've been provided with doesn't show anywhere close to the full amount of time that all the parties were on the scene, including police, Nicholson, and the commissioner," Baldwin tells New Times.

Prior to filing the lawsuit, Baldwin says, he asked City Manager Art Noriega to have Nicholson's allegations independently investigated by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE). Baldwin says that when Noriega failed to respond, he contacted FDLE directly. He says he and Nicholson are now cooperating with the state's investigation into the incident.

"It's inappropriate for the City of Miami to investigate a City of Miami commissioner. It's not appropriate to investigate one of your commissioners who has political ties to the relevant decision-makers," Baldwin argues.

The Miami City Attorney's Office twice reached out to Baldwin requesting to interview Nicholson. Baldwin says he and his client denied the request, in part because the city had not yet responded to all of their public-records requests related to the incident.

Attorney David Winker, who was brought in to help represent Nicholson, says he finds her case troubling.

"Having an elected commissioner involved with an illegal nightclub is embarrassing for all involved, and it is not surprising that Commissioner Diaz de la Portilla is attacking Ms. Nicholson's credibility and the city is stonewalling our public records requests," Winker said via text. "Stay tuned, the truth will eventually be revealed."

Diaz de la Portilla did not respond to phone calls, emails, or texts from New Times requesting comment on the lawsuit.

After the February 21 incident, Nicholson requested a transfer out of code compliance and now works with a different city department.

Her former supervisor, assistant director of code compliance Eric Nemons, is mentioned in her lawsuit, though he is not named as a defendant.

The complaint, which seeks damages in excess of $100,000, alleges that after Nicholson called Nemons and told him that Diaz de la Portilla was present at the illegal event, Nemons consulted with his own supervisor before telling her to leave the venue and to destroy all photographic evidence she had of the event. According to the complaint, Nemons told Nicholson, "We're supposed to keep our politicians safe." Nicholson alleges that Nemons was angry with her for including Diaz de la Portilla's name in her official report of the inspection.
click to enlarge
According to Nicholson, the above photo shows Diaz de la Portilla (left) in a barricaded section of the after-hours party venue.
Photo via City of Miami
Baldwin says Nicholson believes she deleted photos on her work-authorized phone, although some photos may have been backed up to the cloud. In response to a public-records request from New Times earlier this month, the City of Miami turned over numerous photos from the February 21 party, including a photo Nicholson shot that shows Diaz de la Portilla standing in the VIP section next to several scantily clad women.

"Our investigation has yet to determine what other photos remain that she personally took," Baldwin says.

Reached by New Times, Nemons declined to comment at length.

"I heard about the pending litigation. I'm not gonna discuss it. Whatever the allegations are, that's between the plaintiff and the city. I'll let the legal team deal with those allegations," Nemons said.

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Joshua Ceballos is staff writer for Miami New Times. He is a Florida International University alum and a born-and-bred Miami boy.
Contact: Joshua Ceballos