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Norwalk Police Union v. City of Norwalk

Supreme Court of Connecticut

February 14, 2017


          Argued December 8, 2016

          Jarad M. Lucan, with whom, on the brief, was Saranne P. Murray, for the appellant (named defendant).

          J. William Gagne, Jr., with whom, on the brief, was Kimberly A. Cuneo, for the appellee (named plaintiff).

          Rogers, C. J., and Palmer, Eveleigh, Espinosa, Robinson and Vertefeuille, Js. [*]


          ROGERS, C. J.

         The issue that we must resolve in this appeal is whether the trial court properly vacated an arbitration award that had found that the defendant city of Norwalk (city) had just cause to terminate the employment of Stephen E. Couture, a police sergeant employed by the Norwalk Police Department (department). The plaintiff, [1] Norwalk Police Union, Local 1727, Council 15, AFSCME, AFL-CIO, and the city are parties to a collective bargaining agreement (agreement) governing the terms and conditions of employment for certain police officers employed by the city. The agreement provides that disputes over its interpretation will be resolved through arbitration.

         After Couture notified a fellow police officer, Thomas Cummings, of a pending criminal investigation against him, Harry W. Rilling, the chief of the department, reassigned Couture to the department's patrol division. Thereafter, Rilling determined that Couture may have violated a number of department rules and regulations by telling Cummings about the investigation. The allegations of misconduct were litigated in a public trial before the Board of Police Commissioners (board of commissioners). The board of commissioners concluded that Couture had violated a number of departmental rules and that his employment should be terminated. Couture disputed the board of commissisoners' decision through the grievance procedures set forth in the agreement and ultimately initiated an arbitration proceeding with the defendant State Board of Mediation and Arbitration (arbitration board). A majority of the arbitration board found that Couture had been terminated for just cause. Thereafter, the plaintiff filed an application to vacate the arbitration award pursuant to General Statutes § 52-418. After conducting an evidentiary hearing, the trial court, Hon. Kevin Tierney, judge trial referee, vacated the arbitration award on the ground that the city had disciplined Couture twice for the same misconduct in manifest disregard of the law. The city then filed this appeal.[2] We conclude that the decision of the arbitration board was not in manifest disregard of the law and, therefore, that the trial court improperly vacated the arbitration award.

         The record reveals the following procedural history and facts that were found by the arbitration board or are undisputed. Couture started working at the department in 1984. He was promoted to the rank of detective in approximately 1987 and to the rank of sergeant in 1991. In 2001, Rilling appointed Couture as commander of the department's youth bureau.

         During his tenure at the youth bureau, Couture became an experienced investigator of crimes involving persons under the age of majority. Couture's supervisor, Captain Rosemary Arway, considered him to be a leader in the development of team approaches to interviewing child sexual assault victims and Internet sting operations.

         Cummings was a lieutenant in the department and the commander of the detective division. Couture and Cummings had worked together for many years and were on friendly terms, although they were not social friends.

         On Friday, October 26, 2007, Couture's subordinate, Detective Charles Perez, returned a telephone call that he had received earlier in the week from Jill Ruggiero, a detective with the Westport Police Department. Ruggiero informed Perez that there was an ongoing sexual assault investigation that was possibly going to be transferred to the department. Perez told Couture about his conversation with Ruggiero, and Couture instructed Perez to get further information. When Perez spoke again with Ruggiero that same day, the information that she provided led Perez to believe that the suspect in the investigation might be Cummings. Perez told Ruggiero that she should speak directly to Couture about the matter. Perez also called Richard Colangelo, an assistant state's attorney, and told him that the sexual assault suspect possibly was Cummings. At approximately 2:43 p.m., Ruggiero called Couture and gave him information about the investigation, and Couture confirmed that the suspect indeed was Cummings. At the end of that telephone call, both Couture and Ruggiero stated that they would report the situation to their respective chiefs of police.

         Minutes after speaking to Ruggiero, Couture called Cummings' cell phone and made arrangements to meet him in a parking lot across the street from Norwalk High School. Couture spoke to Perez by cell phone while he was driving to the parking lot, but he did not inform him that he was on his way to meet Cummings. During the meeting in the parking lot, Couture told Cummings that he was a suspect in a sexual assault case that the Westport Police Department had been investigating. While Couture and Cummings were still together, Couture received a call on his cell phone from Colangelo. Couture spoke to Colangelo by cell phone again after he left the meeting with Cummings. Couture did not tell Colangelo during either conversation that he had met with Cummings and informed him that he was the suspect in the sexual assault investigation.

         That same day, October 26, 2007, at 5:34 p.m., Couture telephoned Ruggiero from his extension at the police station. Couture told Ruggiero that the sexual assault investigation of Cummings was a ‘‘really big deal'' and that, if word of it became public, it would likely draw the attention of the national news media. Couture further stated that if that occurred, it would be a very bad development for the department. Ruggiero had the impression that Couture was trying to tell her not to make the situation ‘‘any bigger than it already was'' and not to pursue the matter.

         On the morning of Monday, October 29, 2007, Colangelo went to the department to meet with Rilling. When Colangelo told Rilling about the investigation of Cummings, Rilling indicated that he was concerned that Cummings might have been notified about it.[3] Colangelo assured Rilling that that was not the case. Rilling then called Couture into his office, and Couture confirmed that he had told Cummings about the ...

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