Perez-Dickson v. City of Bridgeport
In the 2006 case of Garcetti v. Ceballos, the U.S. Supreme Court concluded that, "when public employees make statements pursuant to their official duties, the employees are not speaking as citizens for First Amendment purposes, and the Constitution does not insulate their communications from employer discipline." Carmen Perez-Dickson brought this action against the defendants including the Bridgeport board of education claiming that the defendants disciplined her for exercising her rights guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and Article First, §§3,4 and 14, of the Connecticut Constitution in violation of C.G.S. §31-51q and §17-101e. She also claimed that the defendants discriminated against her based on race and intentionally caused her severe emotional distress. The jury returned a verdict for the plaintiff on all counts and awarded $2,003,000 in damages. The trial court reduced the verdict to $1,003,000 and awarded attorneys' fees and offer of judgment interest. The defendants appealed claiming, successfully, that the court improperly denied their motions including for a directed verdict contending that they did not violate C.G.S. §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 and that the plaintiff failed to prove her discrimination and emotional distress claims. On cross appeal, the plaintiff raised an alternate ground for affirming her C.G.S. §31-51q claim based on the state constitution. The Supreme Court reversed the judgment and directed judgment for the defendants. The plaintiff did not dispute the principle from Garcetti on appeal or claim that she was not speaking pursuant to her official duties when the speech at issue occurred, concerning her report of teachers abusing students. Consequently, the trial court improperly denied the defendants' motion for a directed verdict. The Supreme Court declined to reach the plaintiff's alternate ground for affirmance raising an unpreserved claim that Garcetti does not bar her claim under C.G.S. §31-51q because the state constitution provides broader protection than the federal constitution. The first impression issue was not raised below and no exceptional circumstances existed. The Court majority concluded that the claim under C.G.S. §31-51q was not of constitutional magnitude. Justice Palmer concurred in the result and disagreed with the reasoning for denying review of the plaintiff's alternate ground for affirmance. He otherwise joined the majority opinion.