Mayor of fishing community, top officials off the hook in retaliation claims

Mayor of fishing community, top officials off the hook in retaliation claims

The mayor and other city officials in the fishing community of Gloucester, Massachusetts, are protected by qualified immunity against the city harbormaster’s claims that they violated his First Amendment rights.

The port director sued the mayor, city attorney, chief administrative officer and human resources official for allegedly violating his free speech rights when they retaliated against him over expert witness testimony he provided as special counsel.

The First Circuit Court of Appeals said the officials were protected because they had reasonable concerns, as public officials, that the harbormaster’s testimony against a local boat captain would harm the city’s reputation and its ties to Gloucester’s fishing community.

A federal appeals court upheld the district court’s summary judgment in favor of city officials on qualified immunity grounds.

The court said that answering the question of whether officials are protected from claims requires balancing the value of an employee’s speech — both to himself and to the public — with the government employer’s legitimate interest in “preventing unnecessary disturbances and deficiencies in the performance of public service.” a task.”

The key question here is whether it had been clearly established at the time of the alleged retaliation by Gloucester officials that the value of Harbormaster Thomas “TJ” Ciaramitaro’s letter “outweighed the municipal interest in the efficient provision of public services” by the Harbormaster’s Office.

The court concluded that it had not been clearly demonstrated that Ciaramitaro’s testimony outweighed the municipal interest and that city officials were reasonable in ruling that it was not. Therefore, they are entitled to qualified immunity for their actions.

The court noted that qualified immunity protects public officials from personal liability for “acts taken in the performance of discretionary functions” and the goal of qualified immunity is “to give public officials breathing room to make reasonable but erroneous judgments about open questions of law.” To achieve this goal, the court will grant qualified immunity unless it is “sufficiently clear that every reasonable official would have known that what he or she was doing violated” the plaintiff’s rights.

This is the Gloucester Fishermen’s Memorial in honor of those who lost their lives at sea.

As Port Manager, Ciaramitaro regulates and maintains Gloucester’s waterfront, enforces local maritime laws, responds to boating emergencies, maintains port facilities, and cooperates with state and federal maritime agencies. Ciarametaro also owns a private consulting firm providing marine investigation and expert witness services.

Two local fishermen have filed a lawsuit against a Gloucester fishing captain and the U.S. Coast Guard, alleging that both parties negligently sank the vessel of stranded fishermen during a failed rescue attempt. The fishermen asked Ciaramitaro to testify on their behalf as an expert witness in the case.

Gloucester officials may pursue outside work that does not conflict with their public duties. Before accepting the offer, Ciaramitaro contacted the city attorney and the state Ethics Commission. He said they both agreed there should be no problem with him testifying since neither Ciaramitaro nor the portmaster’s office was involved in the incident.

Ciaramitaro submitted his expert report in June 2019. The report criticized the actions of both the fishing captain who rescued Gloucester and the Coast Guard. “Everything about the defendant fishing captain’s towing of plaintiffs’ vessel was improper from the beginning,” Ciaramitaro wrote. He also described the Coast Guard’s response as suffering from a “major communications breakdown.” . . Up and down the chain of command.” A trial in the case in which he was scheduled to testify was scheduled for July 2020.

In April 2020, the city’s chief administrative officer received a complaint from the Massachusetts Lobster Association, which represents several local fishermen, about Ciaramitaro’s expected testimony about his findings. The administrative official asked Ciaramitaro to drop the case because the testimony could harm the city and he could lose his job. This advice was supported by Mayor Sifatia Romeo Thekin, who told him that the case was a “major conflict” that could undermine the fishing community’s trust in the port director’s office. Thikin berated him in rude terms, threatened his job, demanded that he step down, and warned him that he was “losing the trust of the fishermen.”

The city attorney told him that his involvement in the case “sends a clear message to the hunting community that if you stop and help a fellow hunter, you may be held liable for negligence.”

The mayor received a letter from a lobster group stating that its members had a “lack of faith in Gloucester Harbour”. “Commercial fishermen need a champion now more than ever, not an anti-fisher authority working against them,” the letter added.

Despite concerns from city officials, and his earlier indications that he would try to withdraw as a witness, Ciaramitaro remained an expert witness in the case.

Ciarametaro claims they began a campaign of revenge. He claims city officials created a hostile work environment by excluding him from important policy meetings and subjecting him to repeated verbal abuse. He claims the city’s mayor called him a “fraud” and suggested her relatives “break Ciaramitaro’s knees.” He also claims city officials denied him work based on overtime details and withheld a previously agreed-upon salary increase.

Ciaramitaro also alleges that city officials interfered with his administration of the harbormaster’s office, including by harassing one of his clerks. Finally, Ciaramitaro alleges that the mayor admitted to working with Gloucester’s human resources director to “fish for wrongdoing” in his personal files.

Ciaramitaro says there is no evidence that his testimony was disruptive to the harbormaster’s office or the city. But the court noted that an employer need not “allow events to unfold to the point where the destruction of employment relations becomes apparent before taking any action.” Instead, the relevant question is whether city officials were reasonably concerned that Ciaramitaro’s expert testimony would disrupt relations between commercial fishermen and the harbormaster’s office.

The appeals court agreed with the district court that officials’ concerns were “certainly reasonable,” citing in part how the lobster fishermen’s association explicitly told the mayor that fishermen viewed the harbormaster’s office as “anti-fishermen.”

“Given this coarse language, city officials could have reasonably expected that Ciaramitaro’s testimony risked undermining his ability to ‘promote the city as a hospitable port.’” Moreover, the court noted that Ciaramitaro himself was aware of this risk, having admitted in letters A text to the mayor that his testimony threatens the “public perception” of his department.

While the ruling was clearly in favor of city officials, the appeals court found it necessary to clarify its meaning.

“To be clear,” the court explained, “we need not (and therefore do not decide) whether the value of Ciaramitaro’s letter outweighs” the interests of city officials. “We only believe that city officials could have reasonably concluded that this did not happen. Even if city officials’ reasoning had been flawed, it would not have been egregiously so. Accordingly, qualified immunity is available.”

Photo: Gloucester: Three fishing boats docked in Gloucester Harbor, Massachusetts.

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