Public Defender Matt Shirk is being sued by a former employee who claims he asked her to shower with him, sent inappropriate messages to her, and was confronted by Shirk's wife, then was fired without cause.
The lawsuit brought by a lawyer representing 31-year-old Tiffany Ice, filed in federal court last week, claims gender discrimination, sexual harassment, hostile workplace and libel. The suit asks for monetary damages, attorney's fees and Ice's job and lost benefits restored.
Allegations of impropriety became public last summer when a Florida Times-Union investigation revealed two investigators in the Public Defender's Office quit over Shirk's hiring and firing of Ice and two other women with no prior legal experience. Two of the women worked at Whisky River nightclub at the St. Johns Town Center prior to being hired at the Public Defender's Office.
In the lawsuit, Ice alleges specific, unwelcome sexual advances by Shirk, including the inviting her into his private office shower and sending her an electronic greeting card with a picture of a man and woman and a caption reading, "I think if we had sex there would be very minimal awkwardness afterwards."
Shirk declined comment about the lawsuit, but his attorney, Damon Kitchen, issued a statement:
"Mr. Shirk has been notified of the lawsuit that Ms. Ice has filed against him. While he vigorously denies Ms. Ice’s claims of discrimination and wrongdoing, he strongly believes in our country’s legal system and institutions and has faith that they will fully vindicate him. In the meantime, he will be devoting his time and attention to discharging his duties as Public Defender for the Fourth Judicial Circuit and ensuring that high quality legal representation is provided to people who cannot otherwise afford defense counsel."
COURT DOCUMENT: Tiffany Ice vs. Matthew Shirk
The lawsuit also names Shirk's former chief of staff, Ron Mallett, as a defendant on the charges of sexual harassment and gender discrimination. Mallett did not respond to a message seeking comment.
Rod Sullivan, a professor at Florida Coastal School of Law who isn't involved in the case, told News4Jax it's not clear that Ice's claims of unwanted sexual advance falls under federal civil rights law.
"Obviously the lawsuit will have to be defended; 95 percent of these lawsuits get settled at some point in the course of litigation," Sullivan said. "I think it is highly defensible."
Special prosecutor investigating Shirk's office
Last August, Gov. Rick Scott appointed Gainesville State Attorney Bill Cervone as a special prosecutor looking into the original allegations about activities in the 4th Judicial Circuit Public Defender's Office. Last month Cervone asked the governor for more time to complete his investigation.
Cervone said he needs the extra time for several reasons, including scheduling interviews with witnesses and dealing with his workload in the 8th Circuit.
On Sept. 11, 2013, dozens of documents were released, including this email exchange between Shirk and one of the women he hired:
T.L. Ice: "Let's get a group together and do Vegas for our birthdays."
Shirk: "Ha! that would be fun."
On Sept. 25, more documents were released. Almost a month later, on Oct. 18, phone records between Shirk and some of his staff were released to the public.
By December Shirk's problems hit home -- literally -- when his wife, Michelle, filed for divorce, saying their 10-year marriage was "irretrievably broken."