Whew! State Supreme Court Reverses Million-Dollar Discrimination Award Against The City

Sometimes the Connecticut Supreme Court rules against the city (state takeover of schools) and sometimes it rules in favor. The unanimous decision The Supremes released today will save the city close to $2 million. The case involves Carmen I. Perez-Dickson, a principal at Beardsley School, who brought two claims against the city going back to 1999 that initially led to a jury returning “a verdict in favor of the plaintiff on all counts and awarded compensatory and punitive damages of $2,003,000.” The city retained appellate specialist Steven Ecker www.cemlaw.com/attorneys_secker.htm to knock back the claims that led to the award including issues involving free speech, race discrimination and emotional distress. From the court decision:

ROGERS, C. J. 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, the former acting superintendent of the school district, disciplined her for exercising her rights guaranteed by the first amendment to the United States constitution2 and article first, §§ 3, 4 and 14, of the Connecticut constitution in violation of 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 judgment interest to the plaintiff and rendered judgment in accordance with the verdict. The defendants then appealed 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 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.

Case background, Supreme Court decision:

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. 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.”

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. 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.

Read entire Supreme Court decision here.

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7 comments

  1. I don’t really understand the facts of this case but know that more than a few days in court have been afforded on the subject since 1999. The plaintiff has continued as a principal in our school system and at the moment it appears the City of Bridgeport has dodged an expensive bullet, inasmuch as “self insurance” means we pay the award if we are held responsible. It means there is no deep-pocket insurance company.

    I went to the Comprehensive Annual Financial Report 2011 where on page 50 Section 11 -Commitments and Contingencies begins. The first section, Personal Injury and Other Actions, says “the amount of recovery could under certain circumstances total between $5 and $10 Million in the aggregate.” I guess this means $2 Million drops off the potential City liability.
    I have wondered how we would pay for a large claim. The City fund balance is lower than called for having reduced quite steadily since the Ganim years. Mayor Finch talks about the subject and has a policy to deal with it, but the “slush” is not going to strengthen “undesignated, unrestricted, uncommitted City fund balances.”
    Page 51 discusses a case with Wheelebrator, a major City taxpayer regarding what appear to be disagreements over some of 2007, 2008, and 2009 assessed values. The section is quiet as to whether disagreement also attends to 2010, 2011 and 2012 values. It would seem this issue just might be an iceberg looming in front of the City. Yet no public discussion occurs, of course, because the matter is in court.
    If Wheelabrator is paying 90% of their tax bill and the bills are overstated 10%, can I assume the City and the plaintiff in this case would be even, a standoff? But if Bridgeport has overstated the valuation by 20% then Bridgeport taxpayers would owe 5-6 years of excess payments and maybe interest??? Is that what this means? Mayor Finch, how about an update??? Time will tell.

  2. So, am I to understand this as a 2 million dollar reversal of a reserve? Is there a line item for this in the budget, and does it get reversed out of the Income Statement? Seems like a pick-up to me.

  3. Zena Lu,
    The info I report above comes from the CAFR-2012 released around December 27, 2011. To the best of my knowledge there is no line item to carry such a pending or potential claim until an action is complete, and that would also include that the parties had exercised final opportunities to appeal.
    I would guess you could look at these items as ‘rain clouds.’ If you have enough of them up there, rain is more likely than on a clear day. How’s that for logic and profundity? What we do not have is a complete scoreboard showing what is hanging at the City Attorney’s office, where the legal actions are in their likely process, and what and when we might get sprinkled or deluged, right? No one wants to be around for a flooding downpour because of the damage and the expense. Time will tell.

  4. JML: My Accounting skills are a bit rusty, but if I think I took “Self insurance” to mean there should be some type of reserve, if not cash, then accrual held on the balance sheet and charged to the income statement incrementally by month until the matter is resolved. I haven’t been at the accounting of such things in a while though; thanks for the refresher course!

  5. Accounting theory, skills, etc. are not an area of primary competency for me. However, I can read, compare and contrast facts and figures. At least I can do that when we get sufficient fiscal info, an uncommon status in Bridgeport.
    So the concept of “self-insurance” is the risk will be funded when the liability is settled out of capital or revenues. Sometimes when there are many claims, payments are made from an internal service fund so established to isolate claims, collect revenues and pay expenses for certain issues, like healthcare or worker’s compensation.
    Frequent smaller claims or very infrequent claims may be handled as “self insurance” to avoid the cost of insuring what is fairly predictable or containable. High limit stop-loss insurance may be purchased to limit the effect of multiple high-limit claims that might exceed the capacity of a payer to meet from diminished capital or revenues. Whether our Bridgeport system is on target is your guess, not mine. Something I have not delved into. Time will tell.

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