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Jennings v. Town of Stratford

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

June 27, 2017

WILLIAM JENNINGS, Plaintiff,
v.
TOWN OF STRATFORD, Defendant.

          RULING ON POST-TRIAL MOTIONS

          Jeffrey Alker Meyer United States District Judge

         Plaintiff William Jennings was a police officer in Connecticut for defendant Town of Stratford for many years. After he criticized what he thought was corrupt action by a captain in the police department, the police department retaliated against him in numerous ways, and plaintiff ultimately resigned. Plaintiff then filed this lawsuit, contending that the Town of Stratford retaliated against him on the ground of his exercise of his right to free speech under the federal and state constitutions. Following a three-day trial, a federal jury agreed with plaintiff and awarded him $1 million in compensatory damages and $1.5 million in punitive damages.

         Several post-trial motions have ensued. For the reasons set forth below, I will deny defendant's motions to challenge the verdict and damages award, except to the extent that I will conditionally grant a new trial unless plaintiff accepts remittitur of the punitive damages award to an amount of $500, 000. I will grant in part and deny in part plaintiff's motion for attorney's fees to allow for an attorney's fee of $500, 000 (subject to plaintiff's acceptance of remittitur of the punitive damages award).

         Background

         The facts set forth below are based on evidence introduced at trial and presented in the light most favorable to the jury's verdict in plaintiff's favor. Plaintiff began his decades-long tenure with the Stratford police department in the late-1980s. By 1999, he had earned the rank of detective and, soon thereafter, was assigned to the Special Services Narcotics and Vice Unit (also known as Special Services), where he received specialized training. After several years with Special Services in roles that often involved undercover work, plaintiff was offered a position to work with the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) as part of a statewide task force. The DEA position was coveted by many local police officers. It came with the prestige of federal agent status and credentials issued through the Department of Justice, as well as the opportunity to investigate drug trafficking that included local, statewide, national, and at times international cases. Doc. #65 at 76. Although plaintiff remained an employee of the Stratford police department and was subject to being replaced on the DEA statewide task force by a different Stratford police officer every two years, plaintiff had succeeded in renewing and maintaining his task force position with the DEA for almost nine years. Plaintiff thrived in the DEA position; he was pursuing his dream career working essentially as a federal agent, often in undercover roles, and he had passed up promotion opportunities within the Stratford police department in order to continue his work with the DEA. Doc. #66 at 30. Plaintiff had been previously “assured that I'd be there and not to worry about” being removed from the position. Doc. #65 at 126.

         The McNeil Scandal

         Plaintiff's position with the DEA often kept him physically away from the Stratford police department, but he nevertheless remained a detective there, privy to internal politics within the department and, as relevant to this case, to a particular scandal that embroiled the department in 2008. As the story went, the brother of the Stratford mayor had applied to become a police officer. Joseph McNeil, a captain in the Stratford police department who disliked the mayor, decided to illegally access the mayor's brother's confidential background report and leak it to the press. When confronted about accessing the application, McNeil lied to internal investigators despite the chief of police's direct order to cooperate fully in the investigation. McNeil's lies were eventually exposed, and he was soon suspended without pay and demoted from the rank of captain. See Exh. 5 at 5. McNeil was later criminally charged with computer misconduct stemming from his role in the access of the mayor's brother's application, and those criminal charges immediately became statewide news. See Exhs. 6, 7.

         Despite all the controversy, McNeil remained president of the local police union, around the same time that plaintiff served as vice president of the statewide police union. At a statewide police union convention in 2008, plaintiff was approached by union members who were curious about the news of McNeil's actions and suspension. This angered McNeil, who believed that plaintiff was spreading rumors about him. McNeil confronted plaintiff at the convention, and they had an extremely heated exchange that resulted in lasting animosity by McNeil towards plaintiff.

         McNeil's fortunes took a turn for the better. By January of 2011, the criminal charges had been dismissed, and McNeil was restored to active duty. He was reinstated as a captain, and he was awarded full back pay, at a cost of $300, 000 to the taxpayers of the Town of Stratford.

         What happened between 2008 and 2011 to change the tides so favorably for McNeil? First, the local police union-in which McNeil maintained a leadership role-aggressively supported the candidate running to unseat the mayor, and the union succeeded in placing its preferred candidate into power. The result for McNeil was the ouster of the mayor whose brother McNeil had embarrassingly exposed to the press. Second, the local police union-with McNeil's participation-took a vote of no confidence against the police chief. After that vote, the incumbent chief left the department, and Patrick Ridenhour was elevated to acting (and soon-to- be actual) chief of police. The upshot was that McNeil was free from the police chief who had disciplined him for illegally accessing the mayor's brother's file and then lying about it to internal investigators.

         Finally, the local police union-with McNeil's participation-renegotiated its collective bargaining agreement with the Town of Stratford. The new deal was quite advantageous for the Town, and McNeil presented the proposed agreement to the police union as a foregone conclusion, requesting ratification in a manner that seemed unusual and rushed, threatening layoffs in the event the union did not approve. Connecting the proverbial dots, plaintiff thought McNeil had engineered some kind of a quid pro quo deal with the Town: in exchange for his pushing through a collective bargaining agreement that was favorable to the Town at the union's expense, McNeil would garner reinstatement to his position as captain as well as a $300, 000 backpay award.

         At least that's what plaintiff believed. He thought that McNeil's good fortunes in having his charges dropped, being reinstated to his position as captain, and being given hundreds of thousands of dollars in back pay, was all no coincidence. And he decided to speak his mind about these concerns.

         Plaintiff's Protected Speech

         On March 18, 2011, plaintiff was in the police department parking lot chatting with Sergeant David Gugliotti when the subject of McNeil came up. Plaintiff told Gugliotti that he was unhappy with the newly renegotiated collective bargaining agreement, and he said he believed McNeil had sold out the interests of the police union during contract negotiations in order to get his position back as a captain in the police department. He deemed McNeil's actions to be “corrupt.” The parties have agreed-and the jury was instructed-that these comments to Gugliotti were constitutionally protected speech. Gugliotti and plaintiff ended their conversation and went home, apparently without incident. But plaintiff's words in the parking lot that day set in motion what the jury found to be a concerted effort by the police department to end plaintiff's career because of his exercise of his rights to free speech.

         Retaliatory Actions Against Plaintiff

         Plaintiff soon learned that he was being investigated for what he had said about McNeil. Indeed, the investigation was set in motion by McNeil himself: Gugliotti had gone right to McNeil-skipping over any lieutenant in the normal chain of command-to tell him what plaintiff had said, and then McNeil in turn had gone right to then-deputy police chief Ridenhour. Docs. #65 at 113-14; #66 at 53. After talking to McNeil, Ridenhour brought it up the chain of command to the soon-to-be ousted chief of police, who ordered an internal investigation into plaintiff's statements about McNeil. Doc. #66 at 54.

         In the meantime, plaintiff continued on at work until he got himself into more disciplinary hot water because of an incident that occurred on April 18, 2011. On that day, plaintiff went to the home of a former DEA informant, David Fredericks, in order to collect a personal debt for a fellow federal agent, see Exh. 502 at 14, a decision he would agree at trial was a lapse in judgment. Fredericks reacted angrily to plaintiff's presence, and the police were called after Fredericks confronted plaintiff with a baseball bat. Fredericks eventually reported the incident to the press.

         Ridenhour, who had been elevated to acting police chief almost the same day as the Fredericks incident, decided on May 17, 2011, to commence an internal investigation into plaintiff's conduct during that incident. He assigned Lieutenant Celeste Robitaille to investigate the Fredericks incident, notwithstanding that Robitaille's direct supervisor-to whom Robitaille reported on a daily basis-was none other than plaintiff's nemesis, McNeil. Doc. #66 at 114-15.

         Two days later, Ridenhour imposed discipline-a written warning-for plaintiff's statements about McNeil. The warning characterized plaintiff's constitutionally protected statements about McNeil as “derogatory and disparaging” and “without merit, ” and concluded that they could “not be tolerated” under the Town's ethics policy. See Exh. 10. The jury found this written warning to be an adverse employment action that was substantially motivated by the fact that plaintiff had engaged in constitutionally protected speech.

         The next day, plaintiff went to his immediate supervisor, Captain John Popik, to discuss the written warning penalizing him for his constitutionally protected speech. Plaintiff indicated that he intended to grieve the warning, to which Popik replied with a threat from McNeil. As plaintiff recounted at trial, “Captain Popik told me that Mr. McNeil said that if I grieved this, there would be repercussions in the future and I would end up like he did on review of the Connecticut POST Academy for potential arrest and losing my certification.” Doc. #65 at 121. The jury found Popik's threat to plaintiff not to grieve his written warning to be an adverse employment action substantially motivated by the fact that plaintiff had engaged in constitutionally protected speech.

         Plaintiff immediately reported Popik's threat to Ridenhour in an e-mail with the subject line “request of internal investigation.” In the e-mail, plaintiff described Popik's threat-that if plaintiff grieved the written warning, he would be investigated and/or disciplined-and indicated that he felt “threatened and manipulated” by a McNeil-friendly faction of the police department, Exh. 11. Plaintiff then asked Ridenhour to investigate “the direct threats made to me regarding this decision [to grieve the warning].” Ibid.

         Ridenhour replied on May 23, 2011, that he would carefully evaluate plaintiff's allegations about the threats to determine whether a formal investigation was warranted. Ibid. A week later, however, plaintiff had still not heard anything about an investigation into Popik's threat or about McNeil's involvement in the threat. Worried, plaintiff sent an emotional e-mail to Ridenhour about the situation:

Sir,
I have had the opportunity to sit with my attorney to discuss the most recent threats upon my decision to file a grievance on the written warning . . . . I also discussed the complaints filed by me in an attempt to stop the harassment which were never dealt with. We came to a simple agreement that I am a target of a supervisor that apparently will not stop until my career is negatively affected by his actions. I will not allow this hostile environment to blemish my career.
After 24 years of working in this department I have faced no disciplinary action or had so many INTERNAL complaints filed against me. The rumors of Captain McNeil wanting me out of DEA have been flowing for years. . . .
All [McNeil] has done is created a detective that can't trust his union and a detective that has minimal supervisors to turn to for guidance and assistance. . . .
This is indeed a hostile environment to work in even though I am in an outside assignment.
The [internal investigation] involving Sgt. Gugliotti and I [regarding my statements about McNeil] should not have gone as far as it did and would not have if Captain McNeil did not influence same. . . .
I have already been advised that when I am back at my PD, I can expect more issues from Captain McNeil. Besides documentation, all I can do is wait and fight the immature actions by a hell bent supervisor with the mayor on speed dial. My family and I will not tolerate it and I am not retiring!!.

Exh. 12. Plaintiff ended his e-mail by requesting an update on whether Ridenhour had launched an internal investigation into the threat plaintiff had received from Popik. Ibid. At trial, Ridenhour testified that he could not recall responding to this e-mail; he further stated that he did not open an investigation into Popik's threat to plaintiff or McNeil's involvement in the threat. Doc. #66 at 117-18.

         Plaintiff received another blow on June 17, 2011, when he learned that Ridenhour had removed him from his position on the DEA Task Force. This occurred even before a suitable replacement had been located or before the investigation into the Fredericks incident had been completed. See Exhs. 500, 501, 502.

         The jury found that plaintiff's removal from the DEA position was an adverse employment action substantially motivated by the fact that plaintiff had engaged in constitutionally protected speech. In doing so, the jury necessarily discredited Ridenhour's stated reason for having removed plaintiff: pressure from the DEA to remove plaintiff once news of the Fredericks incident hit the press. Compare Doc. #66 at 86 (removed plaintiff “shortly after” the Fredericks incident made the local news), with Id. at 87, 89 (no recollection of whether anything about the Fredericks incident had been reported before June 17, 2011) and Id. at 88-89 (identifying an article about the Fredericks incident updated on July 6, 2011), 28 (same).

         At the time plaintiff was removed from the DEA position that he had held for nine years, he had taken a valid medical leave of absence. He was still in that medical leave of absence by the time the Fredericks investigation concluded and when he was called in to a disciplinary hearing. Plaintiff attended the disciplinary hearing with three union representatives who would not even look at him. And after plaintiff watched his union attorney have a conversation with either Ridenhour or Ridenhour's representative, he was told by his attorney that if he did not sign an agreement stipulating to discipline for the Fredericks incident, his attorney believed the Town would fire him. Doc. #65 at 143. The agreement given to plaintiff that day imposed 10 days' suspension for the Fredericks incident and waived plaintiff's grievance rights. See Exh. 504.

         Realizing then that plaintiff had no support even from his union, and no choice but to sign the stipulation-for-discipline or face being fired, plaintiff reluctantly signed the stipulation. Doc. #65 at 143.

         Constructive Discharge

         By then, plaintiff remained in the process of grieving the written warning with the assistance of a private attorney, but he had already been removed from the DEA and been presented with no option other than to agree to suspension for the Fredericks incident. Even had he immediately returned to work from medical leave, his assignment within Special Services had yet to be determined, Exh. 500, which injected a level of uncertainty plaintiff could no longer bear in light of all he had faced. By this time, he had told many of his superiors about being ...


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