Correction, 6 p.m.: Judge Alex Hernandez, suspension appeal.
NORWALK, Conn. – Bruce Morris’s lawsuit against the City of Norwalk and the Norwalk Board of Education is headed for a jury trial, after a Stamford Superior Court judge declined to dismiss it Monday.
Morris has alleged discrimination in the loss of his long-standing role as a Norwalk Public Schools administrator. “There are substantial material triable issues of fact which can only be addressed by a jury,” Judge Alex Hernandez said, declining the defendants’ request for summary judgment.
Much of the half-hour hearing focused on emails sent by the-BoE Chairman Mike Lyons in 2015, in which Lyons referred to a possible “race war” if Morris were let go at that time and called Morris a “snake.” The “race war” remark was mentioned 11 times. In another email, Lyons wrote “Bye, bye, Brucie,” regarding a new budget which eliminated his position; that remark was mentioned twice. Attorney Daniel Angelone, representing Morris, argued that the emails reflected discrimination against his client, and also pointed to inconsistencies in how rules were applied to Morris, alleging that Norwalk Public Schools Chief of School Operations Frank Costanzo was not reprimanded for the same behavior for which Morris was reprimanded.
A trial would take place in October, according to the state judicial website. Morris and his attorney declined to comment after the hearing; asked if a settlement is possible, Norwalk Public Schools Communications Director Brenda Wilcox Williams said NPS would have no comment on the ongoing lawsuit. Attorney Dennis Duaro, representing the defendants, during the hearing called Morris’ job elimination “very simple” and “pretty unremarkable,” the result of budget cuts.
Morris was not a member of the Norwalk Association of School Administrators (NASA) union, the former State Representative (D-140) said. Angelone is representing him in a “standard civil suit arrangement” in which he is “responsible for all costs beyond his fee.”
Emails written by Lyons were also a primary component of evidence submitted in the lawsuit filed by former Special Education Director Christina Fensore against him, which reportedly cost Norwalk Public Schools $371,980.
Clean record, then a reprimand
Morris was hired in 1998 to be Human Relations Director, a role he kept until September/October 2015, when he was reclassified as a School Climate Coordinator. In June 2016, the position was eliminated.
He was elected to the General Assembly in 2006. Morris’ position was cut from 37.5 hours per week to 30 in the 2012-13 budget, when the Board was hit by a $4 million deficit in its insurance fund. Morris was reprimanded in November 2015, after leaving the office to take care of his granddaughter on short notice, without letting a secretary know he was leaving. Morris says he tried to get the secretary’s attention but gave up.
Morris filed a grievance. The Board of Education Negotiations and Personnel Committee allowed the letter to stand, saying it was not subject to the grievance process.
Duaro said the reprimand had nothing to do with the elimination of Morris’ job, but Hernandez questioned the changing terms involved, from “standard courtesy protocol” to “standard communications protocol,” and from a warning to a reprimand. Duaro called that “mere quibbling of words,” and Hernandez asked, “If it was mere quibbling why did they bother to change it?”
“There was a grievance upstate,” Duaro said.
Morris’ recent court filing addresses the reprimand, alleging that two Caucasian co-workers, David Hopp and Fensore, said that “the policy in question either did not exist or that they were never held to the same standard.”
Morris did not speak Monday. His affidavit states that from the day he was hired in November 1998 to November 2015, he was never disciplined by Norwalk Public Schools. Exhibits include a 2002 letter from then-Superintendent of Schools Sal Corda commending him for a “fine job” in moderating a forum, and one from 2009, saying he performs his role “extremely well.” A 2012 performance evaluation rates him as satisfactory in two categories and excellent or commendable in five others.
How do I handle Lyons’ emails?
The exhibits submitted by Morris include emails, written in 2015, in which Lyons called him a “snake” who needs to be eliminated after building a strong case so as to “avoid a race war” and the “usual caterwauling from the ‘minority community.’”
In another email, Lyons wrote that the newly-hired Adamowski agreed to work with Morris, and would direct him to work 32 hours a week and check in digitally, a “change will severely curtail Morris’ political activities, and he’ll have to decide if he wants the $80K and is finally willing to earn it or if he’s willing to take a big pay cut so he can be ‘big man on campus’ in Hartford. But better to leave this to Adamowski, who can build a solid record on Bruce than for us to lay him off and have protests from now to election day.”
On Jan. 15, 2016, after Adamowski released a new budget recommendation, Lyons sent an email to Board members, regarding position changes. “Here it is,” he wrote. “Bye Bye Brucie! Morris and his assistant’s positions are being cut from this budget.”
“How should the court treat the Lyons communications?” Hernandez asked Duaro, Monday.
The attorney for the defendants replied that while they might contain “some undertone” it didn’t matter because Lyons wasn’t the decision maker, and state statute “pretty clear that if you are a non-decision maker the things you say don’t matter.”
“Race war? How am I supposed to interpret that?” Hernandez asked.
Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski was hired on a racially split vote and as a “standard business courtesy” Lyons spoke to him about budget reconciliation matters and the possible elimination of Morris’ position, Duaro said.
“Doesn’t that comment interject the question of racial discrimination into the decision-making process?” Hernandez asked.
Duaro countered that it didn’t, because the position wasn’t eliminated then.
“It could be a reasonable inference from this, really, a non sequitur,” Hernandez said eventually. “Why were they talking about race at all? Mr. Morris is either qualified or he’s not qualified. If he’s not qualified or incompetent, he gets fired. The fact that they delayed letting him go…. doesn’t that impact the whole decision-making process?”
“Of course, race is playing a direct part due to the composition of the BoE,” Duaro said. “…The fact that someone is aware that race exists… doesn’t mean that there may be a decision based on race.”
‘Race war… build a record’
Angelone dramatically read Lyons emails aloud, calling the “big man on campus… build a solid record” email the “quintessential summary of the entire motivation” for Morris losing his job.
“If those are just minor racial undertones then what is actual blatant discrimination? I have no idea if that’s the case,” Angelone said.
Morris’ pay was cut in 2012 and in the following four years, other administrators were hired and Caucasian staff members got pay raises, but Morris did not, Angelone said.
In November 2015, when Morris was out of the office looking after his granddaughter, a Central Office staffer called him and asked where Costanzo was because parents were there to discuss a suspension appeal, Angelone said, citing court testimony. Although Morris was no longer responsible for suspension appeals, he returned to the office to help the parents.
“Mr. Morris gets a warning for not letting anybody know where he was, Mr. Costanzo does not get a warning,” Angelone said.
“Now, you ask why all the name changes,” Angelone said. “…If it was discipline, it would have been subject to the collective bargaining agreement. There is a grievance process, it would have ended up in arbitration and there would have been a fact-finding hearing to find out what is going on. And during that time, the plaintiff would have said, ‘Why was I disciplined and Mr. Costanzo wasn’t?’”
There’s no email saying a record has to be built on other employees to avoid a Caucasian race war, he said, going on to mention a Lyons’ email in which he criticizes Morris for not bringing back more education funding from Hartford and using it to allege discrimination against Morris for being a legislator.
“There are certain things subject to interpretation… Let the jury figure out what Mr. Lyons meant when he said race war,” Angelone said. “Let the jury figure out what Mr. Lyons meant when he said, ‘let’s curtail his political activities.’”