Former Bethlehem police officer Christopher Hughes will finally get his day in court.
The Town of Bethlehem has lost its request to dismiss a civil lawsuit first filed by Hughes in 2010. The lawsuit, which was filed against the town and Police Chief Louis Corsi, accuses the police department of retaliating against Hughes and violating his First Amendment rights when he spoke out against what he said were problems within the department.
In March 2013, Chief Judge Gary Sharp of the New York State Court of Appeals denied the town’s motion for summary judgment, and on March 24 of this year the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit upheld the decision, concluding there were issues of fact to be decided by a jury. A trial date is set for the first week in January 2015.
In its ruling, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals said “Hughes has at least provisionally made a sufficient showing that Corsi violated his First Amendment rights to justify the court’s denial of the defendant’s motion to dismiss the action.”
During his time on the force, Hughes was brought up on two sets of disciplinary charges. Those charges were later dismissed through arbitration. But in his lawsuit, Hughes claims a sergeant on the police force said he would be passed over for a K-9 handler position because of his involvement in the police union’s collective bargaining negotiations with the town. The sergeant who provided the information was Hughes’ brother.
The suit specifically accuses Corsi of retaliating against Hughes for his involvement in the police union and also for going to town administration and the press with allegations Corsi had uttered a racial slur on a taped phone conversation from his office. That tape was later found, and Corsi was issued a 10-day suspension without pay.
“Mr. Hughes is claiming the town retaliated against him because of his expression under the First Amendment,” said Tom O’Connor of Napierski, Vandenburgh, Napierski and O’Connor, who is representing the town and Corsi in the case. “The town states any activity on their part is based upon his conduct and not his expression of speech.”
However in his previous decision, Sharp said the town failed to provide evidence to show it would have taken similar actions regardless of Hughes’ speech.
Sharpe said the First Amendment protects a public employee’s speech only when it is “made as a citizen on matters of public interest concern, rather than as an employee on matters of public interest” and “speech by a public employee is on a matter of public concern if it relates to ‘any matter of political, social or other concern to the community.’”
The town has argued that “virtually all” of Hughes’ complaints and grievances were personal and job related, but Hughes contended that three distinct matters were of greater interest to the town. One involved letters sent to the union, another was Hughes’ disclosures to the department’s Public Integrity Unit involving an unfit officer and the last was disclosure to the media about Corsi’s use of a racial slur.
“Although the letters and complaints made by Hughes permeate a tone of hostility, and the timing of the filing as well as the remoteness in time of certain events about which they protest suggest a less-than-altruistic motive underlying their disclosure, they nevertheless touch on issues of public concern,” ruled Sharpe. “For example, the speech alleges departmental cronyism resulting in the promotion of unfit officers, the failure to address the performance of official duties by certain officers while intoxicated and the use of racially charged language by Chief Corsi.”
Sharpe said “as a matter of law” the speech was protected under the First Amendment.
After the disciplinary charges, Hughes was eventually placed on sick leave for an extended period of time, stripped of his badge and weapon, and then asked to undergo a mental health evaluation. Hughes contends this was all done as retribution for speaking out against the department, but O’Connor said the town had the right to have him examined before granting a full-salary and placed on disability.
The state court of appeals also agreed Corsi didn’t meet the standards to qualify for immunity. This creates the possibility he could be called to testify.
Hughes’ lawsuit seeks compensation for damages, punitive damages against Corsi, and a clean record for Hughes that does not mention disciplinary charges that have been brought against him. The suit also asks that the department fairly consider [Hughes] for positions for which he qualifies without retaliation. However, Hughes has said that even if that happened, it would be unlikely he would rejoin the police force in the Town of Bethlehem.
“Whenever someone asks me why I have gone through all the trouble of filing a lawsuit against Chief Corsi and the Town of Bethlehem, I have to question that individual’s integrity and courage,” said Hughes in a written statement, adding a civil lawsuit was the only legal way for him to tell the town it “could not trample” on his civil rights. “Standing up for myself and others is something that comes naturally to me. That is part of what made me an exceptional police officer.”
In June of 2012, Hughes was found guilty of felony criminal possession of a forged instrument for possessing a fake identification card in order to purchase a retired police officer badge. The town was able to terminate Hughes as an employee under section 141 of the town code as a result of the ruling. He was later sentenced to five years probation.