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Blackwell v. City of Bridgeport

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

February 27, 2017

Lonnie BLACKWELL, Plaintiff,



         Lieutenant Lonnie Blackwell ("Lt. Blackwell" or "Plaintiff) brings this action against his employer, the Bridgeport Police Department ("BPD" or "Defendant"), alleging discrimination on the basis of race and unlawful retaliation in violation of Title VII and 42 U.S.C. § 1981 and seeking declaratory or injunctive relief in addition to compensatory and punitive damages.

         Defendant Bridgeport Police Department ("BPD") now moves [Doc. #31] for summary judgment on the entirety of Plaintiff s complaint, claiming that there is no genuine issue of material fact that Defendant's actions did not create or tolerate a hostile work environment and that Defendant in any case has legitimate non-discriminatory reasons for its actions. Similarly, Defendant asserts that there is no genuine issue of material fact that its actions were not retaliatory. For the reasons discussed below, the Court DENIES Defendant's motion for summary judgment with respect to Plaintiffs hostile work environment claim under Title VII and § 1981, and GRANTS Defendant's motion for summary judgment on the claims of unlawful retaliation.

         I. Facts

         Plaintiff Lonnie Blackwell is a member of the Bridgeport Police Department who has risen through the ranks to become lieutenant and Officer in Charge of the BPD's Training Academy. (Defendant's Local Rule 56a(1) Statement [Doc. # 31-2] at ¶f 4-6 ("56a(1) Stmt."); Plaintiffs Local Rule 56a(2) Statement [Doc. # 41] ¶ 5 4-6 ("56a(2) Stmt."))- Lt. Blackwell began his career at the Bridgeport Police Department in November, 2000 when he was hired as a police officer., Ex. 1 ("Blackwell Aff.") to Pl's Mem. Opp'n. [Doc. # 40-1] 5. In 2006, after six years on the force, he was promoted to Sergeant and in 2008 he was promoted to Lieutenant. (Id.) In January, 2009, he was appointed to the position of Officer in Charge of the Training Academy. (Id. at ¶ 9.) Since 2010, Lt. Blackwell has been president of the Bridgeport Guardians, an organization comprised of minority police officers whose mission is to combat employment discrimination in the Bridgeport Police Department. (Blackwell Aff. ¶ 12.) Lt. Blackwell is African-American and black. (Id. 5 1.)

         The events giving rise to Lt. Blackwell's lawsuit began on March 26, 2012, when an anonymous letter dated March 3, 2012 and purporting to be authored by multiple "Concerned Officers" was distributed throughout the BPD. (See Ex. A ("2012 Anonymous Letter ") to Gaudett Aff. [Doc. # 31-11].) The letter was addressed to Chief of Police Joseph Gaudett and voiced complaints about Lt. Blackwell, focusing primarily on his compensation and his apparent permission to drive a police car home every day.

         Because this one-page letter grounds the discrimination and retaliation claim, it will be quoted at length. In pertinent part, it reads:

Chief Gaudett, This letter is being written to you after we've received numerous complaints regarding the freedom you have allowed Lonnie Blackwell----First and foremost is his salary/overtime over the past several years. $125, 000 in 2009, $152, 000 in 2010, and now $168, 000 in 2011. What other Lt. writes his own overtime like this?... How could YOU allow this to happen under your watch? The talk amongst officers is that he has an open checkbook to write whatever overtime he wants. . . . Most Patrol Lt.s salary and overtime combined do not even match Blackwell's overtime alone.... An element of larceny 1st is the property is obtained by defrauding a public community!!!!!!!!!! We are supposed to fight criminal activity, not allow it He is one of the few people who still takes a car home every night. Did we not end the take home car policy? That white S.U.V. is in Milford almost every night Blackwell is known to never be at the academy while either out meeting with retired/current Guardian members. All this to further his race hustle as President of the Guardians. Do you as Chief of Police allow this to happen in order to appear as if you have solved the racial woes of the Department? ... At what point are we done paying for Remedy? The tide has turned and now you have numerous unhappy white officers among your ranks. Do you even care? Blackwell will use you and then spit you out the second he no longer needs you, while calling you a racist. He's known as Blackhell for a reason. . . . Initial discussions have surfaced about forming a white officers society to help protect ourselves against the abuses you have allowed to occur.

2012 Anonymous Letter.

         The 2012 Anonymous Letter was discovered in the patrol room over the weekend of March 24-25, 2012. (Gaudett Aff. [Doc. 31-10] ¶ 10.) On Monday, March 26, 2012, Chief Gaudett had a copy of the letter sent to Lt. Blackwell and subsequently met with him to discuss its contents. (56al Stmt, ¶ 15.) Neither recalls the exact content of their discussion, although Lt. Blackwell testified that he "may have asked the Chief to try to eliminate the racism in the department." (Blackwell Tr. [Doc. # 31-4] at 29:5-7; 35:5-15.) According to Chief Gaudett, further copies of the 2012 letter were found one month later again distributed throughout the patrol room and police headquarters. (Gaudett Aff. ¶¶ 13-14.)

         On March 26, 2012, the same morning he spoke to Plaintiff about the letters and the department's response, Chief Gaudett sent an email to Assistant City Attorney Arthur Laske and Lt. Rebecca Garcia, officer in charge of the Bridgeport Police Department's Office of Internal Affairs, requesting that Lt. Garcia "[p] lease open an investigation into [the letter's] authorship, etc." (Ex. B. to Gaudett Aff.) Lt. Garcia testified that she did try to track down the original copy of the letter but, despite the Chiefs request, Lt. Garcia did not open an investigation. (Garcia Tr. [Doc. # 31-5] at 13:3-15:8.) In deposition, she explained that Chief Gaudett's email was not an "official directive, " and absent such official directive, she never opened an investigation. (Garcia Tr. atl5:6-16:18.) Lt. Blackwell testified that no one from internal affairs followed up with him and no one from internal affairs checked on his safety. (Blackwell Tr. at 35:18-20.)

         On March 27, 2012, Lt. Blackwell's immediate supervisor, Captain Robert Sapiro, sent an email to Deputy Chief James Baraja about the 2012 anonymous letter. He wrote:

Lt. Blackwell is personally attacked in this racially charged letter. I am concerned regarding allegations that involve his daily whereabouts, his role as Guardian President, and the location of his residence. The name alteration to "Blackhell"; the reference to maligned races; and the need for protection from "abuses that you have allowed to occur" indicates someone feeling victimized, and frustrated with nowhere to turn. Intolerance and animosity expressed toward Lt Blackwell's race, and the Guardians, could foment an atmosphere of hostility toward Black officers in our department. Please advise if there is any policy adherence or any other matters I need to attend to regarding this situation.

(Ex. 1 ("Sapiro E-mail") to Pl's Opp'n. to Mot. Summary Judgment [Doc. # 40-2].)

         A little more than a year later, a second anonymous letter surfaced, but instead of being distributed throughout the department, it was sent to Assistant Chief of Police James Nardozzi. For the most part, the letter focuses on Lt. Blackwell as an individual and attacks the chief of police for cowardice in failing to stand up to Lt. Blackwell's supposed abuses.

         In pertinent part, the second letter reads:

Assistant Chief Nardozzi, We are now writing to you about Lt. Lonnie Blackwell in hopes that you will look into our claims. It is obvious that no high ranking member in the department will stand up for what is right.... Last year we wrote an unsigned letter to Chief Gaudett . . . hoping he would look into the issues mentioned. For obvious reasons, we could not sign it because retaliation would occur. Our understanding is one of the main reasons you were brought in was to fix the overtime. The simple solution to curtail the overtime issues in the department would be to cut back in patrol, but how about an audit of several other areas including the wasteful overtime Blackwell receives. You would think common sense would prevail that one Lt. who needs over $100, 000 in overtime should be replaced with a more competent person. . .. Just take a look at the pay he received over the last four years ($607, 000) and with a clear head tell us if you think that's appropriate. Of course it's not. This get rich quick scheme that Blackwell is performing occurs while Captain Sapiro runs interference for him-----How arrogant that the biggest single abuser of overtime in the department shows up late for a mandatory meeting to discuss overtime!!!The Guardian hush money he receives from the Chief is the dirty little secret nobody wants to talk about[Quoting Chief Gaudett from an interview:] 'Our officers are held to high standards and rightfully so, and we intend to maintain these high standards.' Doesn't this also apply to a Lt. committing Larceny and Fraud? ... The Guardian study sessions that Blackwell was conducting on company time we find especially interesting. After it was agreed upon by Chief Gaudett that promotional exams would require five years of service, Blackwell convinced David Dunne (Civil Service) to have it remain the way it currently is so that his cronies in the Guardians would be eligible to take the exam. He obviously doesn't want the best qualified candidates, just the right color. He would make the circus proud of the clown school he is running----

(Ex. D ("2013 Anonymous Letter") to Gaudett Aff. [Doc. #31-11].)

         On April 18, 2013, several weeks after this letter arrived, Lt. Blackwell emailed Chief Gaudett and Deputy Chief Nardozzi, copying Captain Sapiro, to complain about the letter, noting that he was "once again the target of rampant harassment and humiliation with multiple letters surfacing around the department." (Ex. 38 ("2013 Blackwell E-mail ") to Pl's Mem. Opp'n. [Doc. # 40-9].) In this e-mail, Lt. Blackwell discussed what he perceived to be a "culture of hatred and discrimination" in his workplace and concluded by requesting an investigation: "... let's actually attempt to locate the culprit(s) for once." (Id.)

         Also on April 18, 2013 Captain Sapiro wrote to his superiors, alerting them to the content of the second letter and encouraging them to open an investigation. He noted that this letter was "disparaging" and that "the reference and connection to last year's letter which I thought was racist" was problematic. (Ex. 27 ("2013 Sapiro E-mail ") to Pl's Mem. Opp'n. [Doc. # 40-7].) Captain Sapiro closed his letter by stating that "it could be very difficult [to determine the origin of the letter] but there is always a chance that someone may know something and be willing to come forward. But we will never know if no investigation takes place. If nothing is attempted, there is nothing to discourage this type of behavior from continuing." (Id.)

         The parties agree that the letter was not tested for fingerprints and that no investigation was conducted by the Office of Internal Affairs into to 2013 letter. (Def.'s 56a(1) Stmt. J¶ 33-34. Pl's 56a(2) Stmt. ¶¶ 33-34.) The record does not reflect any attempt on the part of Defendant to address the letters within the police department in any fashion.

         In the time period after those letters circulated in the department and Lt. Blackwell complained about them, the department began to restrict some of the perquisites that Lt. Blackwell had previously enjoyed, including generous overtime and use of a take-home car. The record reflects a steady reduction in overtime beginning in early 2013 (see e.g. Ex. 6 to Pl's Mem. Opp'n. [Doc. # 40-3] (documenting denial of overtime during February 2013); Ex. 7 to Pl's Mem. Opp'n. [Doc. # 40-3] (documenting failure to pay Plaintiff for overtime worked during December 2013); Ex. 8 to Pl's Mem. Opp'n. [Doc. # 40-3] (documenting alleged loss of Plaintiff s timesheets during February, 2014)), but the record does not reflect the date on which vehicle take-home privileges were rescinded. In addition, Lt. Blackwell's superiors took over the task of determining which officers would lead training courses despite the fact that Lt. Blackwell was nominally the Officer in Charge of the Training Academy. (Ex. 21 to Pl's Mem. Opp'n. [Doc. # 40-6] (indicating that the Chief had removed "POST C certification approval" from Lt. Blackwell's office to his own).) Lt. Blackwell groups these changes in the conditions of his employment into six categories.

         First, some of the discretion Lt. Blackwell exercised to assign training duties to particular officers within the Training Academy was curtailed. The record does not clarify whether the official authority to assign teaching duties lay with Captain Sapiro or Lieutenant Blackwell. While the Chief of Police is ultimately responsible for all work assignments within the department (56a(1) Stmt. ¶ 62; 56a(2) Stmt. ¶ 62), the commanding officer of the Training Division is responsible for the training function of the Bridgeport Police Department (Gaudett Aff. ¶¶ 27 - 29). The BPD Policy and Procedure Manual clarifies that "[a] 11 training and training-related activities shall be coordinated through the Commanding Officer of the Training Division, " including planning training programs and selecting instructors. (Ex. F. to Gaudett Aff.) According to Chief Gaudett, Lt. Blackwell was the "head of training" at the Bridgeport Police Department. (Gaudett Aff. ¶ 6.)[1]

         Despite this delegation of authority for selecting instructors, Chief Gaudett personally assigned responsibility for leading the Cooper fitness training class to Sergeant Collazo in the summer of 2013. (56a(1) Stmt. J¶ 70-71; 56a(2) Stmt, f¶ 70-71.) When the department shifted from one kind of revolver to another, Deputy Chief Armeno, who is in charge of firearms at BPD, selected Lt. Gilleran to lead the training. (56a(1) Stmt, f 79; 56a(2) Stmt, f 79.) While the parties agree that in-service training classes for the evening and over-night shifts were moved from the training academy to police headquarters, they disagree vehemently about the reasons for this move; whereas Defendant argues that the move produced a significant reduction in overtime, Plaintiff asserts that the move was motivated by a desire to further strip Plaintiff of responsibilities. (56a(1) Stmt. ¶¶ 88-90; 56a(2) Stmt. ¶¶ 88-90.) Finally, Assistant Chief Nardozzi selected Lt. Straubel to lead an orientation program for new sergeants. (56a(1) Stmt, f¶ 94-96; 56a(2) Stmt. ¶¶ 94-96.)

         Second, Lt. Blackwell's permission to work overtime was restricted, thereby causing a reduction in his overall compensation. (See Def.'s Rule 56a(1) Stmt. ¶¶ 56-57 (noting approximately 56% reduction in overtime from 2012 to 2013); Pl's Rule 56a(2) Stmt. 55 56-57.) The parties agree that Assistant Chief Nardozzi was hired to "substantially reduce overtime and other costs throughout the Bridgeport Police Department." (56a(1) Stmt. ¶ 40; 56a(2) Stmt. J 40.) Lt. Blackwell admits that Assistant Chief Nardozzi reduced overtime "overall" starting in 2013. (Blackwell Tr. at 84:12-16.) However, Lt. Blackwell asserts that the reductions were uneven and that "some divisions . .. earned substantial amounts of overtime and . .. some divisions were not allowed to work overtime." (Blackwell Tr. at 84:8-11.)

         The record contains a series of e-mails documenting reductions to Plaintiffs overtime (Exs. 9-18 to Pl's Mem. Opp'n.) and another series raising questions about inexplicably lost or misplaced timesheets recording overtime (Exs. 7-8 to Pl's Mem. Opp'n.). These e-mails document denial of Plaintiff s requests to work overtime on many occasions from 2013-2014. However, they also indicate that Plaintiffs supervisor, Captain Sapiro, was denied permission to work overtime as well. For example, on August 27, 2013, Captain Sapiro wrote to Lt. Blackwell, "[Deputy Chief Baraja] did protest on the division's expenditures. I explained that we turned in only 4-5 hours for the entire summer. I wrote an email explaining my lack of resources. He seems to believe we can get by." (Ex. 12 to Pl's Mem. Opp'n. [Doc. # 40-4].) Likewise, Captain Sapiro explained that he worked overtime without compensation:

As I have made you aware, since the summer I have worked anywhere from five to ten hours a week for in house comp time, or not even recorded, that I may or may not ever use. I felt this was my only option in order to complete tasks that I believed were important and were expected to be completed.

         Ex. 15 to Pl's Mem. Opp'n. [Doc. # 40-4].

         Defendant gives reasons for these curtailments of overtime, explaining that "in 2011, the Bridgeport Police Department took steps to try to reduce overtime. As a result, many police officers had their overtime pay reduced. Departmental-wide cuts in overtime and other ...

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