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Jackson v. Rooney

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

September 13, 2016

JAMES JACKSON, Plaintiff,
v.
BRIAN ROONEY, ET AL. Defendant.

          RULING ON MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          VICTOR A. BOLDEN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Plaintiff, James Jackson, a former firefighter of Caucasian descent who was terminated by the City of Bridgeport for filing false insurance claims and a false police report following a burglary at his home, brought this case against his former employer, the City of Bridgeport (the “municipal Defendant”), its Fire Chief Brian Rooney, Deputy Fire Chief James Grace, and Mayor William Finch (collectively, the “individual Defendants”). Jackson alleges that the Defendants subjected him to discrimination, a hostile work environment, and retaliation by terminating him.

         Specifically, Jackson claims that the Defendants do not discipline or terminate Black or Hispanic firefighters with more serious misconduct or criminal charges on their records. He asserts claims for violation of the equal protection and due process clauses of the United States Constitution under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (“Section 1983”), Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (“Title VII”), the Connecticut Fair Employment Practices Act (the “CFEPA”), negligent supervision under Connecticut state law, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and municipal liability for the violation of his constitutional rights.

         For the reasons that follow, Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment is GRANTED as to Plaintiff's claims arising under federal law. The Court declines to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the remaining state law claims.

         I. STATEMENT OF FACTS

         Jackson, a Caucasian male, began working for the Bridgeport Fire Department (“BFD”) on February 28, 2000. Def.'s Rule 56(a)(1) Statement ¶¶ 1-2, ECF No. 32-1.[1] As a BFD firefighter, Jackson took an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States, to uphold the laws of the State of Connecticut, to obey the Rules and Regulations of the BFD, and to obey the directives of his supervisors. Id. ¶ 3. He was terminated by the BFD on June 22, 2012. Termination Letter, Def.'s Ex. 1, ECF No. 32-3.

         Before his termination, Jackson had two prior disciplinary incidents in his record. Termination Letter, Def.'s Ex. 1, ECF No. 32-3. On October 19, 2006, he received counseling concerning a citizen complaint about rude conduct and, on February 25, 2011, he received a written warning for insubordination. Id.

         A. Plaintiff's Insurance Fraud and False Police Report

         On the morning of October 31, 2011, Jackson reported a burglary at his home to the Naugatuck police department. October 2011 Police Report at 1, Def.'s Ex. 3, ECF No. 32-3. There had been a winter storm the night before. Def.'s Ex. 4, ECF No. 32-3. Jackson reported that the following items were stolen: a 2004 Old Dog chopper motorcycle, a Troybuilt lawnmower, an Echo gas blower, a Ryobi gas trimmer, several carpenters' tools, a Keurig coffee maker, two LCD televisions, a DirecTV receiver, a Gateway laptop, and a Gateway printer. October 2011 Police Report at 1, Def.'s Ex. 3, ECF No. 32-3. The officer at the scene reported that it appeared as if the burglars entered the kitchen by smashing out the doorknob and lock of the kitchen door with a sledgehammer that the officer found in the garage. Id. The officer did not find any fingerprints at the scene or on the sledgehammer. Id.

         Within two days of filing the October 31, 2011 police report, Jackson began filing insurance claims on items that were allegedly stolen from his home. SBMA Trans. May 1, 2013 531:2-8, Def.'s Ex. 14, ECF No. 32-4. He received $15, 254 from Progressive for the allegedly stolen motorcycle. SBMA Award at 4, Def.'s Ex. 9, ECF No. 32-3. He received $8, 800.13 from Met Life on his homeowner's insurance claim. April 2012 Police Report at 5, Def.'s Ex. 3, ECF No. 32-3.

         On March 20, 2012 and April 13, 2012, the Naugatuck police received anonymous emails claiming that Jackson staged the burglary to make fraudulent insurance claims, took apart his motorcycle to hide it, and built a false wall in his basement to hide the allegedly stolen items. April 2012 Police Report at 1-2, Def.'s Ex. 3, ECF No. 32-3. Two police officers went to Jackson's home on April 18, 2012 to investigate. Id. at 3. Jackson confessed to the Naugatuck police that he had “padded his insurance claims” by making false claims on several items which had not actually been stolen. Id. Jackson maintained that he was the victim of an actual burglary and that he then “received some advise [sic] from his coworkers that told him to add items to his insurance claim” to get extra money. Id. His motorcycle, paint sprayer, portable air conditioner, blender, and printer were not actually stolen. Id. Instead, he had taken apart his motorcycle and hid the pieces, along with the rest of the items, under the basement stairs. Id. The police obtained an arrest warrant on May 17, 2012 and arrested Jackson on May 18, 2012. Arrest Warrant at 1-2, Def.'s Ex. 3, ECF No. 32-3.

         After Jackson confessed, he retracted his insurance claims and made restitution to the insurance companies. Due Process Hearing Trans. at 7, Def.'s Ex. 7, ECF No. 32-3. Jackson returned the $15, 254 that he received for the motorcycle. SBMA Award at 4, Def.'s Ex. 9, ECF No. 32-3. Of the $8, 800.13 he received from his homeowner's insurance, he returned $7, 024.61, representing compensation for the allegedly stolen property, and kept $1, 788.89, representing compensation for damage to his home. Id.

         B. Publicity and Plaintiff's Termination

         Journalists from local television news networks, including NBC Connecticut, WFSB Eyewitness News 3, and WTNH News 8, reported Jackson's insurance fraud and his arrest. Def.'s Ex. 4, ECF No. 32-3. The news coverage emphasized that Jackson was a BFD firefighter. Due Process Hearing Trans. at 18, Def.'s Ex. 7, ECF No. 32-3. Fire Chief Rooney learned of this matter while watching the news and he described the coverage as “an embarrassment.” SBMA Award at 3, Def.'s Ex. 9, ECF No. 32-3.

         In a letter dated May 22, 2012 and signed by Deputy Fire Chief Grace, the BFD notified Jackson that he was being put on Administrative Leave as of May 21, 2012. Leave Letter, Def.'s Ex. 5, ECF No. ECF No. 32-3. The letter notified Jackson that the BFD was conducting an investigation into his arrest in connection with his false police report. Id. Fire Chief Rooney testifies that he was the only person involved in deciding whether Jackson violated BFD or City rules in the investigation and administrative hearing process leading to his termination. SBMA Trans. Feb. 13, 2013 238:23-239:1, Pl.'s Ex. 1, ECF No. 42-3.

         An investigation hearing occurred on June 4, 2012, and Jackson made no comment. Due Process Hearing Letter, Def.'s Ex. 6, ECF No. 32-3. In a second letter dated June 8, 2012 and signed by Fire Chief Rooney, the BFD notified Jackson of the charges against him for violating the BFD Rule and Regulations Sections 17.18, 17.41, and 17.45; the City of Bridgeport Work Rules and Regulations, Numbers 9, 17, and 18; and the City of Bridgeport Code of Ethics. Id. The text of these rules was appended to the letter. Id. The letter also gave Jackson notice that he was required to attend a due process hearing on June 13, 2012, where he could rebut the charges against him, and that, if he failed to attend, he could face disciplinary consequences up to and including the termination of his employment. Id.

         The due process hearing took place on June 14, 2012. Due Process Hearing Trans. at 1, Def.'s Ex. 7, ECF No. 32-3. Jackson appeared at the June 14 due process hearing with his union attorney, John Robert Gulash. Id.; SBMA Award at 3, Def.'s Ex. 9, ECF No. 32-3. Fire Chief Rooney, Deputy Fire Chief Grace, the BFD's attorney John Bohannon, Labor Relations Officer Philip White, the City of Bridgeport Director of Labor Relations Lawrence Osborne, and Dan Hunsberger from the union also attended the hearing. Due Process Hearing Trans. at 1, Def.'s Ex. 7, ECF No. 32-3. At the outset, Attorney Bohannon read Jackson his Garrity v. State of N.J., 385 U.S. 493 (1967) warning.[2] Id. at 2. The warning read as follows:

Mr. Jackson, you are hereby advised that this interview is for administrative purposes only and as a public servant you are obligated to answer questions relative to your employment. Any and all statements made by you during the course of this interview cannot be utilized in any criminal proceeding which may be currently pending or may be initiated against you regarding this investigation. Failure to answer any questions truthfully, presented to you during the course of this interview, will subject you to a separate charge of insubordination.

Id. Jackson acknowledged that he understood the warning and apologized to Fire Chief Rooney for the negative attention that he had brought to the BFD. Id.

         Jackson recounted the events surrounding the false police report and insurance claims. Due Process Hearing Transcript at 3-6, 9-14, Def.'s Ex. 7, ECF No. 32-3. He also clarified that, while he told the police that a colleague had advised him to pad his insurance claims, it was actually a social acquaintance, not a colleague, who had advised him. Id. at 4, 7. He then revised his story and stated that he had spoken to colleague Lieutenant Morotto about the robbery, and that Lt. Morotto asked if he had receipts and records recording the value of the stolen items. Id. at 14-15. Jackson came away with the impression that he could suffer a “substantial unreimbursed loss” based on not having such records, and he testified that he then “made that horrible mistake” of making the false police report and the insurance claims. Id. at 15-16. He stated that he “didn't spend the money” and “didn't need the money” that he received from the insurance companies. Id. at 16. At the hearing, Jackson informed the panel that he was making restitution to the insurance companies. Id. at 7-8.

         During the hearing, Fire Chief Rooney pressed Jackson on whether he had staged the entire robbery, rephrasing the question around four times. Due Process Hearing Transcript at 12, Def.'s Ex. 7, ECF No. 32-3. Fire Chief Rooney commented that there was an issue of “credibility.” Id.

         Towards the end of the hearing, Jackson stated that “when I made the decision to do it I regretted the minute [the police officer] called in that plate” for his motorcycle. Due Process Hearing Transcript at 17, Def.'s Ex. 7, ECF No. 32-3. Fire Chief Rooney pointed out that Jackson could have confessed much sooner, and Jackson admitted that was true. Id. Jackson then repeated that he had made a mistake and was glad that he “cooperated 100% with the police” in April 2012, after they began questioning him regarding whether his motorcycle was actually stolen. Id. at 18. Deputy Fire Chief Grace commented that, while Jackson was saying that he knew he had done something wrong, he had not confessed until he was caught. Id. at 17. Labor Relations Director Osborn asked Jackson whether the local news networks were aware that he was a firefighter, and Jackson answered yes, the news reports generally mentioned that he was a firefighter. Id. at 18-19.

         Following the due process hearing, Fire Chief Rooney sent Jackson a letter, dated June 22, 2012, notifying him of his termination. SBMA Award at 3, Def.'s Ex. 9, ECF No. 32-3; Termination Letter, Def.'s Ex. 1, ECF No. 32-3. The letter stated that, taking into account the facts Jackson presented at the hearing, the BFD found that he had violated all of the BFD and City of Bridgeport rules cited in the May 22, 2012 Administrative Leave letter. Termination Letter, Def.'s Ex. 1, ECF No. 32-3.

         Among other comments, the letter notes that Jackson's apologies during the hearing were “of little concern when you fraudulently contributed to the burglary at your home, ” that his actions in initially depositing the insurance checks were a “clear example of your intent to fully carry out your plan to bilk the insurance companies, ” and that his claims that he “felt bad about lying to the police and insurance companies” were “absolutely outrageous.” Termination Letter, Def.'s Ex. 1, ECF No. 32-3. The termination letter goes on to state that, as public servants, members of the BFD must demonstrate the highest standards of ethical conduct both on and off duty, so that “the public may have trust and confidence in your presence when entering homes and businesses.” Id. Fire Chief Rooney claims that Jackson's misconduct combined with the publicity left the BFD with no choice but to terminate him. SBMA Award at 4, Def.'s Ex. 9, ECF No. 32-3.

         Jackson resolved the criminal case against him on October 18, 2012, with a plea of nolo contedere to the charge of false reporting of an incident in the second degree, after he was already terminated from the BFD. Plea Trans.1:22-25, 3:5-8, Def.'s Ex. 12, ECF No. 32-4; SBMA Award at 4, Def.'s Ex. 9, ECF No. 32-3. The Connecticut Superior Court sentenced Jackson to a one-year suspended sentence and two years conditional discharge. Plea Trans. 8:3-10, Def.'s Ex. 12, ECF No. 32-4.

         C. Grievance Proceedings

         After Jackson's termination, his union, the IAFF Local 834, filed a grievance under the procedures outlined in its collective bargaining agreement. Def.'s Local Rule 56(a)(1) Statement ¶ 39, ECF No. 32-1. The Connecticut State Board of Mediation and Arbitration (“SBMA”) commenced a hearing on January 14, 2013. Id. ¶ 40. The SBMA conducted six evidentiary hearings and accepted extensive briefing from the parties. Id. ¶ 41. The SBMA denied the grievance and found that Jackson was terminated for just cause. SBMA Award at 12, Def.'s Ex. 9, ECF No. 32-3.

         The union filed an application to vacate the SBMA's award with the Connecticut Superior Court. Def.'s Local Rule 56(a)(1) Statement ¶ 42, ECF No. 32-1. The Superior Court upheld the SBMA award on August 1, 2014, finding no violation of public policy and that the City of Bridgeport could terminate Jackson for his criminal conduct even if the City did not have a per se rule of dismissal and the criminal conduct at issue was off-duty. Superior Court Decision at 12-13, Def.'s Ex. 10, ECF No. 32-3.

         D. Defendant's Treatment ...


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