Whistleblower-in-Blue Has Case for Retaliation

     MANHATTAN (CN) — The Second Circuit advanced claims Wednesday by a police officer who says blowing the whistle on her pension-padding brothers-in-blue got her fired.
     Rebecca Ricciuti says she was “disgusted by the amount of money being spent on unnecessary overtime” in the Madison Police Department both as a Madison taxpayer and as a police officer forced to outdated equipment because of the overstretched budget.
     Census data for the Connecticut coastal town shows that Madison households earned more than $104,000 in 2013, putting them well above the statewide average of $67,000.
     As Ricciuti spoke out about the waste, however, the patrol officer became the target of an internal investigation. She says a lieutenant admitted that supervisors assigned themselves overtime to pad their pensions, and told her it was “none of [her] business.”
     Not heeding that advice, however, Ricciuti drew up a matrix with a colleague that showed Madison taxpayers had spent at least $100,000 on unnecessary overtime for police supervisors.
     Madison’s police commission fired Ricciuti shortly thereafter. Though the commission did not offer a reason, the chief of police said Ricciuti had been insubordinate in a meeting about her job performance.
     Ricciuti brought a federal complaint contending that she suffered retaliation for exercising her First Amendment rights.
     Madison appealed after the trial court denied it summary judgment, and the Second Circuit affirmed Wednesday.
     The town and various police officials Ricciuti had sued claimed they were entitled to immunity, but the federal appeals court said their argument improperly relies on a disputed version of the facts.
     Important to Ricciuti’s case is her insistence that she created the matrix independently, on her own time, and using only public information.
     “Moreover … Ricciuti communicated her concerns to members of the public and contacted local leaders to push for reform, just as a private citizen exercising her First Amendment rights would do,” U.S. Circuit Judge Rosemary Pooler wrote for the three-member panel. “Defendants, of course, dispute these facts. They dispute, for example, that the matrix contained only public information, noting that Ricciuti stated in her deposition that she relied in part on information contained in a clipboard chart posted in a sergeant’s private office. But the District Court concluded that the evidence proffered by Ricciuti on this issue — including an affidavit by a former police officer stating that the information contained in the matrix was public and available through Freedom of Information Act requests — was sufficient to create a genuine issue of material fact.”
     At this stage of the litigation, Pooler emphasized, “we must accept that ‘all the facts that the District Court found to be disputed are resolved in the plaintiff’s favor.'” (Emphasis in original.)
     As for the town’s claim that Ricciuti was a probationary, at-will employee at the time she was fired, Pooler said “it has been clearly established for decades that the government may not retaliate against even an ‘at-will’ employee for protected speech.”

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