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Austin v. City of Bridgeport

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

September 23, 2019



          Michael P. Shea, U.S.D.J.

         Plaintiff Thomas C. Austin (“Austin”) filed suit against the City of Bridgeport (“Bridgeport”). He alleges that Bridgeport terminated his employment in violation of his right to free speech under the First Amendment (count one); his right to due process under the Fourteenth Amendment (count two); his right to free speech under Connecticut General Statutes § 31-51q (count three); and his rights under the Bridgeport City Charter (count four). Bridgeport filed a motion for summary judgment on all counts. For the reasons set forth below, Bridgeport’s motion is DENIED.

         I. FACTS

         The following facts, which are taken from the parties’ Local Rule 56(a) statements and supporting exhibits, are undisputed unless otherwise indicated.

         A. Austin’s Hiring & Bridgeport’s Civil Service System

         During Mayor Finch’s term in office, Deputy Director of Labor Relations Tom McCarthy asked Austin if he would be interested in working for Bridgeport as a Senior Labor Relations Officer. ECF No. 32-1 at ¶¶ 24, 27; ECF No. 38 at ¶¶ 24, 27. Austin submitted a cover letter and resume, and interviewed for the position with Director of Labor Relations Larry Osborne. ECF No. 32-1 at ¶ 31; ECF No. 38 at ¶ 31. He did not go through a competitive civil service process or take a written test. ECF No. 32-1 at ¶¶ 35-36; ECF No. 38 at ¶¶ 35-36. He was hired and began serving in the position on July 3, 2012. ECF No. 32-1 at ¶¶ 1, 32; ECF No. 38 at ¶¶ 1, 32.

         Before taking the position, Austin had worked in private law practice doing real estate closings, criminal work, matrimonial law, and some employment law. ECF No. 32-1 at ¶ 28; ECF No. 38 at ¶ 28.

         The Charter of the City of Bridgeport (“City Charter”) delineates two types of civil service employees: classified and unclassified. ECF No. 32-1 at ¶ 9; ECF No. 38 at ¶ 9. These two types of employees are set out and defined in Section 205(a) of the City Charter:

(a) The civil service of the city is hereby divided into the unclassified and classified service. The unclassified service shall comprise: (a) The mayor and all officers elected by the people; (b) all executive offices or positions specifically created by charter and the method of filling which is governed by specific and express provisions of the charter, including the civil service commissioners, superintendent of schools, assistant superintendent of schools, superintendent of the department of public welfare, with the exceptions hereinafter noted; (c) members of boards and commissions appointed by the mayor and serving without pay; (d) members of any board or commission appointed by, the city council; (e) all classes of teachers in the school system of the city, so far as their original appointments hereto are concerned; (f) the deputy director of public works, the assistant city treasurer, the assistant town clerk, the assistant city attorney and the assistant city engineer.
The classified service shall include all other offices or positions existing at the time of the passage of this act or thereafter created, including all positions and offices in the police department, including that of chief of police, and all positions and offices in the fire department including that of fire chief.

ECF No. 38-1; Section 205(a). The parties agree that the position of Senior Labor Relations Officer does not fall into any of the unclassified categories enumerated in Section 205(a), ECF No. 32-2 at 26; ECF No. 38 at ¶ 5, and that the position came into existence after the adoption of the City Charter, ECF No. 32-1 at ¶ 14; ECF No. 38 at ¶ 14.

         To establish a position in the classified service, Bridgeport city officials must follow the procedural requirements set out in Section 206(d) of the City Charter:

Whenever the appointing authority of any department desires to establish a new permanent position in the classified service, the personnel director shall make or cause to be made an investigation of the need of such position and report his findings to the commission. If upon consideration of the facts the commission determines that the work of the department can not be properly and effectively carried on without the position, it shall classify and allocate the new position to the proper class after the position has been established by the city council. If the commission determines that the position is not necessary and that the work of the department can be properly and effectively carried on without the position, it shall promptly transmit such determination to the city council. Such determination by the commission shall be final unless the city council, within two months of the date of such disapproving action by the commission, shall by its duly enacted resolution approve the establishment of such position. In such event the final action of the city council shall be promptly transmitted to the commission and the commission shall allocate the position or positions therein approved to its proper class in the classification plan. All classifications and allocations made pursuant to this subsection shall be based on the same procedure and formula called for in subsections (a) and (b) of this Section.

ECF No. 38-5 at 2-3; Section 206(d). The parties agree that these procedures were not followed with respect to the position of Senior Labor Relations Officer. ECF No. 32-1 at ¶¶ 12-14; ECF No. 38 at ¶¶ 12-14.

         Unclassified employees either have set terms of office or serve at the pleasure of the Mayor. ECF No. 32-1 at ¶ 11; ECF No. 38 at ¶ 11. Those who serve at the pleasure of the Mayor may be terminated because of a change in administration. ECF No. 32-1 at ¶ 11; ECF No. 38 at ¶ 11. Classified employees cannot be terminated unless such termination is for “just cause, ” and the employee is given notice of the termination and an opportunity to appeal and be heard regarding the termination. ECF No. 32-1 at ¶ 10; ECF No. 38 at ¶ 10. Section 223 of the City Charter governs the termination of classified employees and provides, in relevant part, as follows:

No person or employee holding a permanent office or position in the classified service shall be removed, discharged or reduced, except for just cause which shall not be political or religious. No. such person shall be removed, discharged or reduced unless the appointing authority first gives him notice person the opportunity to respond. A copy of any such notice of the proposed action and the basis for it and affords such person the opportunity to respond. A copy of any such notice shall immediately be forwarded to the commission. . . .
Within three days after the removal, discharge or reduction, an appeal may be made to the commission, in writing, by the employee so removed, discharged or reduced. The commission, on receiving such notice of appeal, shall set a date for a hearing or investigation of the reasons for the removal, discharge or reduction . . . . The civil service commission, or any committee appointed by said commission, shall conduct the hearing or investigation. The employee appealing shall have full opportunity to be heard and may be represented by counsel of his own choosing or by a duly authorized member of the employee organization of which he is a member . . . . The decisions and findings of the commission, or of the investigation committee, when approved by the commission, shall be final and shall be filed, in writing, with the personnel director and shall be forthwith certified to and enforced by the head of the department or appointing authority. . . . The decisions and findings of the commission referred to in this Section may be appealed from the person adversely affected thereby to any judge of the superior court . . . .

ECF No. 38-8; Section 223.

         Bridgeport asserts that David Dunn, who was the Labor Relations Officer for Bridgeport from 1985 to 1990 or 1991, was “an unaffiliated, unclassified employee.” ECF No. 32-1 at ¶¶ 7, 18. It further asserts that Dunn’s successors in the role, Herbert Grant and Lawrence Osborne, were also “unclassified and appointed to this position.” ECF No. 32-1 at ¶ 18. Bridgeport points to Dunn’s testimony to support these assertions. Austin argues that “Dunn’s statement is an uncorroborated, self-serving statement of an employee of the defendant” and therefore “it cannot, without corroboration, support the defendant’s motion for summary judgment, especially since the claim conflicts with the express provisions of § 205 of the city charter.” ECF No. 38 at ¶ 18.

         B. Cavalli Trial

         On January 19, 2016, Anthony Cavalli, President of the Bridgeport City Supervisors Association (“BCSA”), filed suit against Bridgeport in Connecticut Superior Court. ECF No. 32-1 at ¶ 38; ECF No. 38 at ¶ 38. Austin asserts that Bridgeport had refused to recognize its obligations under a collective bargaining agreement based on its claim that the agreement had not been properly ratified, ECF No. 38 at 23 ¶ 29, and that Cavalli and BCSA brought the suit to force Bridgeport to comply with the terms of the agreement, Id. at 23 ¶ 30. Austin was called to testify at the trial about the negotiation of the agreement and the ratification process; he testified on February 25 and 29, 2016. ECF No. 32-1 at ¶ 39; ECF No. 38 at ¶ 39 & 23-24 ¶¶ 31-32. Phil White, another Labor Relations Officer, also testified in this matter. ECF No. 32-1 at ¶ 41; ECF No. 38 at ¶ 41. White is still employed as a Senior Labor Relations Officer. ECF No. 32-1 at ¶ 41; ECF No. 38 at ¶ 41.

         Judge Bellis of the Connecticut Superior Court ruled against Bridgeport. ECF No. 38 at ¶ 33. In so ruling, she made the following statements:

The court vehemently rejects any claims that Mr. McCarthy’s or Mr. Austin’s acts or testimony may have been influenced by the fact that they would benefit financially from the new contract.

ECF No. 38-10 at 5.

The Court finds that there is no credible evidence that Messrs. McCarthy or Austin acted adversely to the City’s interest, that they acted in a self-serving manner, or that they abandoned the interests of the City. The contract at issue was negotiated by individuals, including Messrs. McCarthy and Austin, at the direction of the City and within the scope of their authority to do so. In fact, it was their job to do so, and it was done with the full knowledge of their employer, the City of Bridgeport.
And although the City abandoned its position that Mr. McCarthy and Mr. Austin were acting against the interests of the City, the Court notes nonetheless that the City’s original position that they were not doing so was not meritorious and frankly does not appear to be made in good faith based upon the evidence that was presented during the trial.

ECF No. 38-10 at 6.

         C. Austin’s Termination

         Joe Ganim succeeded Bill Finch as Mayor of Bridgeport in December 2015. ECF No. 32-1 at ¶ 42; ECF No. 38 at ¶ 42. After Ganim took office, McCarthy’s employment was terminated and Janene Hawkins became the Director of Labor Relations. ECF No. 32-1 at ¶¶ 8, 46-47; ECF No. 38 at ¶¶ 8, 46-47. Hawkins, in consultation with the City Attorney’s office, the Chief Administrative Officer’s office, and the Mayor’s office, made the decision to terminate Austin. ECF No. 32-1 at ¶ 50; ECF No. 38 at ¶ 50. Austin’s employment was terminated on July 8, 2016. ECF No. 32-1 at ¶¶ 4, 48; ECF No. 38 at ¶¶ 4, 48. The termination letter included the following language:

This letter is official notice that your employment in the Office of Labor Relations is terminated effective immediately in compliance with the authority granted by the Charter of the City of Bridgeport and the rules and regulations of the Civil Service Commission as they relate to unaffiliated, appointed, non-union employees.

ECF No. 32-1 at ¶ 49; ECF No. 38 at ¶ 49; ECF No. 32-8.

         On or about September 13, 2016, Austin appealed his termination to the Civil Service Commission on the basis that he was a member of the classified civil service. ECF No. 32-1 at ¶ 52; ECF No. 38 at ¶ 52. His appeal was discussed at the May 9, 2017 Civil Service Commission Regular Meeting. ECF No. 32-1 at ¶ 53; ECF No. 38 at ¶ 53. He was notified on May 11, 2017 that his appeal had been denied. ECF No. 32-1 at ¶ 54; ECF No. 38 at ¶ 54. The Civil Service Commission denied his appeal because it concluded that he was a mayoral appointment and therefore an unclassified employee whose employment was terminated with the change in mayoral administration. ECF No. 32-1 at ¶ 54; ECF No. 38 at ¶ 54.


         The court must grant a motion for summary judgment if the moving party shows “that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and [that it] is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A fact is “material” if it “might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law, ” and a dispute is “genuine” if “a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party” based on it. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc.,477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). If a motion for summary judgment is supported by documentary evidence and sworn affidavits and “demonstrates the absence of a genuine issue of material fact, ” the nonmoving party must do more than assert the existence of some unspecified disputed material facts or “rely on conclusory allegations or unsubstantiated speculation.” Robinson v. Concentra Health Servs., Inc.,781 F.3d 42, 44 (2d Cir. 2015) (citation omitted). The party opposing the motion for summary judgment “must come forward with specific evidence demonstrating the existence of a genuine dispute of ...

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