Perez–Dickson v. City of Bridgeport

Citation114 Fair Empl.Prac.Cas. (BNA) 1461,34 IER Cases 508,279 Ed. Law Rep. 1015,43 A.3d 69,304 Conn. 483
Decision Date01 May 2012
Docket NumberNo. 18401.,18401.
CourtSupreme Court of Connecticut

304 Conn. 483
43 A.3d 69
114 Fair Empl.Prac.Cas.
(BNA) 1461
279 Ed. Law Rep. 1015
34 IER Cases 508


No. 18401.

Supreme Court of Connecticut.

Argued May 18, 2011.
Decided May 1, 2012.

[43 A.3d 76]

Steven D. Ecker, with whom was Gavan F. Meehan, Hartford, for the appellants-cross appellees (defendants).

Max F. Brunswick, New Haven, with whom were Valerie Adams Baker and Josephine Smalls Miller for the appellee-cross appellant (plaintiff).

Marc P. Mercier, Manchester, filed a brief for the Connecticut Employment Lawyers Association as amicus curiae.



[304 Conn. 486]The plaintiff, Carmen I. Perez–Dickson, brought this action claiming that the defendants, the board of education of the city of Bridgeport (board), Henry R. Kelly, the former assistant superintendent of the Bridgeport public schools (school district), and Daniel Shamas,1 the former acting superintendent of the school district, disciplined her for exercising her rights guaranteed by the first amendment to the United States constitution 2 and article

[43 A.3d 77]

first, §§ 3, 4 and 14, of the Connecticut constitution 3 in violation of [304 Conn. 487]General Statutes §§ 31–51q4 and 17a–101e,5 discriminated against her on the basis of her race in violation of 42 U.S.C. §§ 19816 and 1983,7 and intentionally caused her severe emotional distress. The jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiff on all counts and awarded compensatory and punitive damages of $2,003,000, which the trial court subsequently reduced to $1,003,000. Thereafter, the trial court awarded attorney's fees and offer of [304 Conn. 488]judgment interest to the plaintiff and rendered judgment in accordance with the verdict. The defendants then appealed 8 claiming that the trial court improperly denied their motion for a directed verdict, to set aside the verdict, and for judgment notwithstanding the verdict on the grounds

[43 A.3d 78]

that: (1) the defendants did not violate § 31–51q because any relevant speech by the plaintiff had been pursuant to her official job duties and such speech is not protected by the first amendment; (2) the plaintiff failed to prove her claim of racial discrimination pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981 and 1983; and (3) the plaintiff failed to prove that the defendants had intentionally inflicted severe emotional distress on her. In addition, the defendants claim that the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over the plaintiff's claim pursuant to § 17a–101e, improperly admitted certain newspaper articles as evidence at trial, and improperly calculated offer of judgment interest. The plaintiff filed a cross appeal claiming that the trial court improperly had reduced the damage award and improperly calculated offer of judgment interest. In addition, she contends that her claim pursuant to § 31–51q may be affirmed on the alternate ground that the defendants disciplined her for exercising her speech rights under article first, §§ 3, 4 and 14, of the state constitution, which protect an employee's speech pursuant to official job duties. We agree with the defendants' first three claims and with their claim that the trial court lacked jurisdiction over the plaintiff's claim pursuant to § 17a–101e. We also conclude that the plaintiff's alternate ground for affirmance was not preserved for review. Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the trial court and direct judgment for the defendants.9

[304 Conn. 489]The jury reasonably could have found the following facts. In 1998, the plaintiff, who is of African–American and Puerto Rican descent, was appointed as the principal of Beardsley School in the school district. In December of that year, she noticed that a white male teacher, V.L., was repeatedly mistreating a sixth grade student. At one point, the student came to the plaintiff and showed her his hand, which was red and swollen. The student told her that V.L. had followed him as he entered the lavatory and had squeezed his hand around the doorknob so hard that he caused the injury. The plaintiff took the student to the school nurse and instructed her to report the injury to the department of children and families (department). The plaintiff also telephoned Kelly and told him what had happened. In addition, she sent a memorandum to Kelly about the incident. V.L. was placed on paid administrative leave several months after the incident.

In January, 1999, Kelly asked all of the school district principals, including the plaintiff, to come individually to his office to discuss what they had achieved during the first half of the school year. During his meeting with the plaintiff, Kelly stated that he was concerned about the climate at Beardsley School and that the plaintiff's career was in jeopardy.10 The plaintiff “got choked up” and was frightened. Kelly also told the plaintiff at one point that she should not “make waves” at the school and that, if she intended to walk around the school and visit classrooms, she should carry keys in her pocket and jingle them so that the teachers could hear her coming and “behave.”

[43 A.3d 79]

[304 Conn. 490]In April, 1999, a parent of a student at Beardsley School told the plaintiff that a teacher, T.B., had thrown the student against the wall and physically and verbally abused him. The plaintiff reported the abuse to the department and to Kelly. Kelly came to the plaintiff's office and interviewed the student about the incident. After reviewing the student's school record, Kelly observed that the student had moved frequently and told the student that he seemed to be a problem. The plaintiff told Kelly that the student was the victim and the fact that he moved around a lot did not justify the abuse. Kelly then gave the plaintiff “a look” and raised his eyebrows. T.B. ultimately was placed on paid administrative leave for six weeks.

At the end of the 1998–1999 school year, Kelly prepared a written evaluation of the plaintiff's performance in which he directed the plaintiff to “adjust her managerial style, as necessary, to better ensure effective communication, collaboration and mutual high expectations of students and staff alike” and to “improve in her efforts to identify, address, and (where possible) resolve staff issues, to improve staff morale.” The plaintiff wrote on the appraisal form that test scores and student attendance had improved during the course of the year.

In December, 1999, the plaintiff was quoted in a newspaper article as saying that, as a parent and a child advocate, she did not agree with the discipline that V.L. and T.B. had received, and thought that it should have been more aggressive. Shortly thereafter, she received a letter from attorneys for the board requesting that she come to a meeting to discuss whether she had revealed confidential information to the newspaper. The plaintiff told the attorneys at the meeting that the newspaper had misquoted her and that she did not know what the outcome of the abuse cases had been.

[304 Conn. 491]At the end of the 1999–2000 school year, Shamas transferred the plaintiff to Newfield School in the school district. Kelly told the plaintiff that she was being transferred because too many teachers were transferring away from Beardsley School. The plaintiff viewed the transfer as a demotion because Newfield School, which had fewer than 300 students, was much smaller than Beardsley School, which had approximately 750 students, and she would be paid $1000 less per year. In 2003, the plaintiff was transferred to Roosevelt School in the school district, which had approximately 900 students.

In 2000, the plaintiff filed a complaint alleging, inter alia, that, from 1998 through 2000, Kelly, joined by Shamas, had engaged in “a campaign of harassment, discrimination and retaliation directed against [her] in response for her cooperation with [the department] and its investigation of the assaults” by V.L. and T.B. and that because, in reporting the alleged assaults to the department, she had “exercised her rights guaranteed by the first amendment to the United States constitution and/or [§§] 3, 4, and 14 of article first of the constitution of the state of Connecticut,” the defendants' alleged conduct had violated §§ 31–51q and 17a–101e. In addition, she claimed that the defendants' conduct had been motivated by race in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981 and that it had constituted intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress.

On November 17, 2005, Teresa Carroll, a school board administrator, telephoned the plaintiff and asked her to come to a meeting the next morning. Because Carroll refused to tell the plaintiff what the meeting was about, the plaintiff called John Ramos, the superintendent of the school

[43 A.3d 80]

district.11 Ramos told the plaintiff that he [304 Conn. 492]knew the purpose of the meeting, but that he would not discuss it with her at that time. Carroll informed the plaintiff at the meeting that she had been accused of abusing a student, that she was being placed on paid administrative leave immediately and that she would not be allowed to return to work. The plaintiff became very upset and asked who she had been accused of abusing and the details of the accusation. Carroll refused to answer her questions.

Ramos made the decision to place the plaintiff on administrative leave. He testified at trial that he had become superintendent in June, 2005, that he was not aware of the plaintiff's history in the school system and that his decision was based solely on the gravity of the allegations against her and the fact that the accusation had been made by an adult staff member.

The plaintiff ultimately discovered from reading the newspaper that she had been accused of sexually abusing a male student. The fact that she had been accused of student abuse was reported in a number of newspaper articles. The plaintiff...

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