In a precedent-setting decision creating new rights for employees claiming job discrimination in Miami-Dade County, the Florida Third District Court of Appeal has ruled that such claims may be asserted in court against employers with as few as five employees.

A panel of three judges decided that section 11A-28(10) of the Miami-Dade County Code allows employees of Miami-Dade County private employers to sue for workplace discrimination, including at small businesses with as few as five employees. Judges Thomas Logue, Eric Wm. Hendon, and Monica Gordo were unanimous in their decision.

The lawsuit involved a claim by a male employee of AutoZone Investment Corp. that he had been verbally harassed at the store where he worked due to his sexual orientation. After he filed an internal complaint, AutoZone placed him on leave and subsequently fired him.

When the employee sued for discrimination and retaliation, AutoZone filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that Chapter 11A did not provide a private cause of action for employment discrimination. Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge Lourdes Simon agreed with AutoZone’s reasoning and dismissed the lawsuit. The employee then appealed.

In their June 15 ruling, the appellate judges disagreed and reversed Judge Simon’s decision, sending the case back to her for a trial on the merits of the claim. AutoZone has not disclosed whether it intends to appeal to the Florida Supreme Court.

Under a 2006 amendment to the ordinance, the appeals court concluded that: “We find that … the plain and unambiguous language of section 11A-28(10)(b) establishes a private cause of action for employment discrimination,” Judge Gordo wrote in the court’s decision.

Section 11A-25(2) defines “Employer” as “any person who in the regular course of business has five (5) or more employees in Dade County in each of four (4) or more calendar weeks in the current calendar year and any agent, acting manager, contractor or subcontractor of such person.”

As a result, the court’s decision will open up small employers to lawsuits for workforce discrimination not previously thought to be available in Miami-Dade County. State and federal anti-discrimination laws require that the employer have at least 15 employees for a suit to be allowed against them.

Under the ordinance, if the court finds that a discriminatory practice has occurred it may issue an order prohibiting the practice and providing affirmative relief from the effects of the practice. The court may issue a temporary or permanent injunctive and other equitable relief and a temporary restraining order, and it may award actual and punitive damages, reasonable attorney’s fees, interest, and court costs or other appropriate relief.

“This appellate court ruling is a victory for employees in Miami-Dade County who are being discriminated against and are now not restricted from pursuing their rights,” the employee’s attorney, Chad Levy of Sunrise, said.