More than three years after she was fired for slapping passengers’ hands, a Regional Transit System bus driver might get her job back.
The Florida First District Courts of Appeal ruled Friday to uphold a decision made three years ago to give Desiree Heyliger, 39, her job back with three years’ worth of back pay, after she claimed she was unfairly fired as an RTS bus driver in November 2015.
The city has 30 days to either reinstate Heyliger or appeal the decision. City spokesperson Chip Skinner said the city hasn’t made a decision yet.
The lawsuit is currently not on the agenda for Thursday’s city commission meeting, but Mayor Lauren Poe said he expects the commission to discuss the issue.
While the commission relies on city staff to manage the hiring and firing of employees, it does have the power to direct staff on how to move forward with the lawsuit, Poe said.
On Oct. 14, 2015, a woman boarded Heyliger’s bus with an open container, according to court records. Heyliger told the woman it wasn’t allowed on the bus, then asked for her bus pass. The woman waved the pass in her face and Heyliger smacked her hand out of the way and said, “Don’t do that. Get your hand away.”
The second incident was two days later when a man complained about the bus being late as he boarded, records said. He reached his arm out toward Heyliger who then slapped it away and said, “Don’t touch me. Don’t touch me. Don’t touch me.”
There is video footage of the incidents, both of which Heyliger reported to dispatch, records said.
Based on the contract between the city and the Amalgamated Transportation Union, which represents RTS drivers, the issue of her termination would be settled by an arbitrator, which is an outside party that officially settles disputes.
“Normally, arbitration is great,” said Eric Lindstrom, Heyliger’s attorney. “Arbitration is a way for both sides to resolve disputes very quickly and very inexpensive relative to lawsuits.”
The arbitrator, Joe Harris Jr., reviewed evidence such as the bus videos, other similar RTS incidents and testimonies from some of Heyliger’s passengers, records said.
In 2016, the arbitrator ruled that the city unfairly fired Heyliger and should reinstate her with back pay, according to court records. Instead of accepting the ruling, the city filed a lawsuit against the union, which represents RTS drivers.
The court ruled in the city’s favor, which reversed the original decision, records said. The union appealed the court’s ruling and it moved on to the Florida First District Courts of Appeal, which decided to uphold the arbitrator’s original decision.
The city spent about $44,000 to file a lawsuit against the union, records said.
Heyliger declined to comment and referred questions to Lindstrom. Lindstrom said Heyliger loved being a bus driver, which she started in 2001 and began working at a gas station after she was fired.
“Desiree really is a friendly, outgoing, loving, caring person, so she made friends really quickly with a lot of her patrons,” Lindstrom said. “Her livelihood was taken away from her.”
Lindstrom said that when she was fired, she was devastated.
“Any attorney would love to have a case go to the supreme court and be able to argue before the Supreme Court,” Lindstrom said. “But for Desiree, it’s just so important that she goes back to work. She can’t have any further delay.”
Desiree Heyliger, 39, a former RTS bus driver, might get her job back with three years' worth of back pay after she claimed she was unfairly fired in 2015.