Updated, 6:15 p.m.: Comment from Mike Lyons, clarification about mayoral endorsement process.
NORWALK, Conn. — One of Norwalk’s mayoral candidates is suing the city, its Board of Education and its school district.
State Rep. Bruce Morris (D-140) alleges in his complaint to Connecticut Superior Court, filed June 15, that he has been discriminated against because of his race, because he is a state legislator and in retaliation for opposing discriminatory employment practices. He also alleges invasion of privacy.
The discrimination charges Morris is pursuing are largely the same ones he made to the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities (CHRO). Those complaints was released by CHRO on March 30, and Morris has made the 90-day deadline to begin a lawsuit.
The accusation of invasion of privacy charge stems from Norwalk Deputy Corporation Counsel Jeffry Spahr’s release of a copy of the CHRO complaint to NancyOnNorwalk.
Morris has filed papers to run for mayor. The Democratic Town Committee will endorse a mayoral candidate on July 20. Should that be Mayor Harry Rilling, Morris could challenge Rilling’s re-election via a Democratic primary in September.
The discrimination that Morris says he has been subjected to include his position being downgraded after his hiring in November 1998, from being a Superintendent’s cabinet position giving input at weekly meetings to being excluded from those meetings in 2005.
Morris claims that he was set up for failure, as his staff was reduced until he was the only department head without employees.
In 2006, NPS moved African-American employees to a secluded area of the department, essentially segregating them, the complaint states.
In July 2012, Morris’ pay was reduced, although “similarly situated Caucasian” employees’ pay went up, the complaint states.
Morris’s position changed from human relations director to school climate coordinator just last year. He asked for but did not receive a job description, the complaint states.
When Morris was elected to the General Assembly in 2006, he was asked to reimburse NPS for “various expenses, including training for and employment of temporary District employees,” to do his work for him if he was unable to get it done because of his responsibilities in Hartford, but Morris refused, the complaint states.
The complaint claims that the school district did not request other similarly situated employees to pay expenses for their time out of work.
From October 2015 to May 2016, NPS had no one “responsible for or actively working on issues of affirmative action or diversity for the District,” the complaint states.
NPS attempted to tarnish Morris’ reputation, telling an employee that he was not qualified to supervise her, although he had been her supervisor for several years, the complaint states.
Before Morris filed his CHRO complaint, Morris met with Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski and was told that Adamowski was looking to cut costs, the complaint states. Adamowski informally asked Morris to review a retirement package but didn’t tell him that his position was under consideration for elimination or that it would be eliminated if he didn’t take the package, according to the lawsuit.
In June 2016, Adamowski offered Morris a retirement package contingent upon Morris dismissing without prejudice charges of discrimination and legal claims, the lawsuit claims, further explaining that Morris refused, and was told one week later that his job would be eliminated if he didn’t take the package.
He again refused and was terminated on June 30, 2016, the lawsuit claims.
Regarding the invasion of privacy charge, the lawsuit states, “unlike public filings in the State Judicial system, the CHRO keeps any and all filings confidential and any requests for the release of said information are subject to the rules and regulations set forth in the Regulations of Connecticut State Agencies.”
The lawsuit states:
- “During the course of the CHRO investigations, Plaintiff and Defendants engaged in settlement discussions. One set of discussions was pursuant to the rules and regulations of the CHRO. Another set of discussions was commenced privately between the parties.
- “The private settlement discussions were mediated by Mayor Rilling.
- “It was agreed by all parties (including Mayor Rilling) that the settlement discussions would remain confidential.
- “The settlement discussions mediated by the CHRO were also confidential.
- “Defendants knew or should have known of the confidential nature of all settlement discussions.
- “The context and content of the settlement discussions were highly sensitive and geared towards reaching a mutually-agreeable conclusion to the aforementioned claims brought by the Plaintiff.
- “Despite reasonable and genuine efforts by the Plaintiff to engage in constructive dialogue, Defendants refused to participate in any meaningful way. As a result, settlement discussions ceased.
- “Thereafter, and despite their confidential nature, Defendants intentionally publicized Plaintiffs settlement discussions, as well as correspondence from Plaintiffs counsel as it related to those discussions, to the public. The publication was thereafter posted on an internet blog and became accessible to anyone, world-wide.
- “The publication of these private, confidential discussions are highly offensive.”
That Spahr’s response to the CHRO complaint was also released to NancyOnNorwalk is also an invasion of privacy, the lawsuit alleges:
- “Defendants’ Response to Plaintiffs Charges of Discrimination provides a one-sided interpretation of the settlement discussions which took place between Plaintiff and Defendants and specifically leads the reader to believe that Defendants, at all times, acted reasonably and in good faith while Plaintiff was, at all times, unreasonable. This interpretation is contrary to reality.
- “As a direct and proximate result of Defendants’ publication of the Response, Plaintiff has been placed in an objectionable false light in that he acted in a way other than reasonable during the aforementioned settlement discussions.
- “By the aforesaid actions, Defendants have violated the common law tort of invasion of privacy by intentionally placing Plaintiff in a false light.
- “Plaintiff was damaged as a proximate result of Defendants’ intentional conduct.”
Spahr, in his response to the CHRO complaint, called the CHRO compliant “a naked attempt to leverage or force the District into paying more for his retirement package than what he would have been entitled to receive under the terms of the pension plan.”
“It is clear that the Complainant had calculated that by filing these false claims he would be able to squeeze more compensation out of the District,” Spahr wrote.
According to Spahr’s reponse to CHRO, Morris asked to have his salary increased retroactively so that his pension would be higher. Spahr produced a letter from Morris’ attorney, Daniel Angelone, requesting that Morris stay on as a consultant for three years after his retirement.
The discrimination charge is “as offensive as it is false,” Spahr wrote, listing the number of African American administrators hired by the current Board of Education. Nine of 19 principals are African American and the “Norwalk Early College Academy Director, a Special Education Administrator the Chief Talent Officer, and the Chief Academic Officer are all African American/Black,” Spahr wrote.
Mayor Harry Rilling attempted to negotiate with Morris, and an additional payment of $20,000 was pledged, but, again, the offer was rejected, Spahr wrote.
“The Complainant’s effort does not represent an honest attempt to resolve a valid claim of discrimination. Instead, this is an attempted shakedown being perpetrated by the Complainant in order to feather his own nest and to boost his retirement package at the expense of the Norwalk taxpayers. Shameful,” Spahr wrote.
The lawsuit asks the court to order the city, the BoE and Norwalk Public Schools to make Morris whole, pay his costs and punitive and compensatory damages.
“I am confident that we will prevail in this case, as we would have had the matters stayed in the CHRO (we were ready to proceed with the CHRO hearing when Mr. Morris asked for the release),” BoE Chairman Mike Lyons said Friday in an email. “The evidence is clear that the present Board has been anything but discriminatory, as we have hired a large number of African-American administrators, including in critical positions like Chief Academic Officer, HR Director and principalships; Mr. Morris’s claims in that regard are flatly false. There is also the problem (for Mr. Morris) that claims like these have a very short (6-month) statute of limitations; he’s going to have a lot of trouble sustaining claims all the way back to 2005 when their limitations periods ran out twelve years ago. Since this is in litigation I won’t have any other comments to make, but these points are appropriate to make at the outset to put this complaint in context.”