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White v. City of Bridgeport

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

March 23, 2016

THOMAS J. WHITE, Plaintiff,
v.
CITY OF BRIDGEPORT, Defendant.

RULING ON CROSS-MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

Jeffrey Alker Meyer United States District Judge

Plaintiff Thomas White worked for several years as the Legislative Services Director for defendant City of Bridgeport in Connecticut. But he lost his job when defendant eliminated the Legislative Services Director position in 2012. Although defendant claims that plaintiff lost his job because of budgetary reasons, plaintiff claims that defendant retaliated against him for his constitutional exercise of free speech. Plaintiff also claims that defendant violated his right to procedural due process by denying him a hearing to challenge the termination of his employment.

Plaintiff has moved for partial summary judgment on his due process claim, and defendant has cross-moved for summary judgment to dismiss all claims. Because I conclude that there are no genuine issues of fact or law to support plaintiff's claims, I will deny plaintiff's motion for summary judgment and grant defendant's motion for summary judgment.

Background

The Bridgeport City Council hired plaintiff as its Legislative Communications Director in 2006. In 2007, the Council changed his title to Legislative Services Director and made him part of the "classified service, " a class of employees who could only be fired for cause.

In 2010, defendant claims it began investigating plaintiff on suspicion that he misrepresented his authority in seeking a salary study that could have increased his own pay. In September 2010, plaintiff's counsel received the following letter from the lawyer hired to conduct the investigation:

As a courtesy to you, I am writing to inform you that the City Council intends to terminate Mr. White's employment for justifiable reasons which I am willing to speak to you in private about. Be assured, however, that the charges against Mr. White are severe and as an at-will employee he will in all likelihood be terminated. With that said, rather than engage in a prolonged termination process, I would like to offer your client the opportunity to resign, thereby permitting him to seek gainful employment elsewhere without a blemish on his employment record.

Doc. #41-6. Defendant acknowledges that this letter was sent but claims it was unauthorized, and there is no dispute that defendant did not pursue disciplinary charges against plaintiff.

About a year and a half later, the Council passed a budget in May 2012 that eliminated plaintiff's position effective June 30, 2012, and allocated most of the funds to hire a Legislative Liaison to perform clerical duties for the City Clerk's office.[1] Plaintiff received a letter on June 14 informing him of the layoff, although he was already aware of the budget vote. He did not request a pre-termination hearing.

At some point in October 2012, plaintiff spoke with Councilmember Michelle Lyons, and Lyons described the new Legislative Liaison as plaintiff's "replacement." Doc. #41-3 at 21. According to plaintiff, he concluded from this conversation that the budgetary reasons given for his termination were a sham. Not until December 2012-about six months after he lost his job and about two months after his conversation with Councilmember Lyons-did plaintiff request a post-termination hearing from the City of Bridgeport's Civil Service Commission.

The Commission did not decide whether to grant plaintiff a post-termination hearing for nearly another year until it convened on November 25, 2013. In connection with that meeting, a city attorney sent a letter to the Commission contending that the Commission had no jurisdiction to consider plaintiff's request for a hearing, because the Commission had no authority under the Bridgeport City Charter to review decisions of the city to layoff employees as deemed necessary by the mayor for budgetary reasons. Doc. #39-7 at 2-4. The attorney's letter noted that plaintiff had filed the instant federal lawsuit contesting his termination and contended that the appropriate forum for plaintiff's challenge to his termination was in federal court. Id. at 4.[2] The minutes of the Commission's meeting of November 25, 2013, reflect that the Commission credited the contentions of the city's attorney that it did not have jurisdiction and declined to hear plaintiff's appeal of his termination of employment. Doc. #39-8 at 2-4.

Plaintiff claims that his firing was a sham layoff and that the true reason that he was fired was because of his engaging in constitutionally protected speech. In support of this claim he identifies several interactions that he had with city council members.

The first such interaction came when Councilmember Robert Curwen wanted to attend a conference in 2007 (about five years before plaintiff's position was terminated). Curwen asked plaintiff to pay for the trip out of department funds because his personal stipend for such expenses had been exhausted. Plaintiff informed Curwen that it would be inappropriate to fund the trip that way. Curwen replied, "okay, " and "[d]ropped it." Doc. #41-3 at 18 (plaintiff's deposition).

Two years later, in 2009, Curwen submitted a resolution to the Council that would have eliminated plaintiff's position. The Council never acted on the resolution. Plaintiff draws a connection between these two events, stating that "having seen [Curwen's] personality traits over some ...


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