Civil Rights & Constitutional Law
Former police lieutenant sues Independence officials for First Amendment retaliation
October 28, 2019
Thursday, November 12, 2020
CLEVELAND — A federal judge has denied the City of Independence, Ohio’s bid to escape liability for forcing a decorated police officer out of his job after he spoke up about the former mayor’s illegal traffic-ticket quota.
U.S. District Court Judge James S. Gwin denied motions by the City—along with former mayor Anthony Togliatti and Police Chief Michael Kilbane—to end the case without a trial based on a lack of evidence—and partially denied a motion by the law director, Gregory J. O’Brien.
Judge Gwin said Mr. Mazzola had produced more than enough evidence to prove the central allegations of his complaint, which says that when revenue from mayor’s court started to dip in 2018, Togliatti ordered Kilbane to implement a traffic-ticket quota to help him generate more money. Mr. Mazzola objected to the policy to then-Mayor Togliatti and warned that he believed it was illegal, but he followed the chief’s order to implement it.
But when another employee leaked a memo about the quota to a reporter, Togliatti, Kilbane, and Law Director O’Brien assumed Mazzola was the whistleblower, the complaint says, so they began a campaign of First Amendment retaliation, launching an investigation, repeatedly sending him to a polygrapher, and threatening to end his career before they finally forced him out of his job, years ahead of his planned retirement.
After Mr. Mazzola, represented by The Chandra Law Firm, LLC, sued the City, Togliatti, Kilbane, and O’Brien for First Amendment retaliation and civil liability for the criminal act of interfering with civil rights, the defendants asked for summary judgment, arguing that the First Amendment’s free-speech clause permits them to punish people for releasing public records to the public, but did not permit Mr. Mazzola to say that the City should not subject its citizens to a traffic-ticket quota.
Judge Gwin made short work of their arguments, noting that adopting an arbitrary traffic-ticket quota is a matter of public concern and that the city’s bureaucratic protocols for releasing public records were not more important than Mr. Mazzola’s right to alert the public to the City’s wrongdoing.
Subodh Chandra, lead counsel for Mr. Mazzola, said the Court reached the right decision: “The City’s response to getting caught imposing a traffic-ticket quota on its residents has been wrong from day one, and so have its specious arguments in this case. If the First Amendment means anything, it means the government can’t retaliate against people who catch it engaged in improper conduct. Mr. Mazzola is delighted to be one step closer to hearing what a jury thinks of these officials’ attempts to cover up their misconduct.”
Although the Court granted partial summary judgment based on “qualified immunity” to O’Brien on the First Amendment–retaliation claim—leaving the civil-liability-for-criminal acts claim against O’Brien to proceed to trial, Mr. Mazzola has already asked the court to reconsider based on new evidence. The judge had found that O’Brien couldn’t be held liable because was only relaying information back and forth between more-involved parties, but the court then ordered the release of allegedly privileged communications between O’Brien and City officials that the City had been withholding, and permitted a new deposition of O'Brien. And those e-mails and that new deposition showed O’Brien was far more involved than he had disclosed to the court when he requested summary judgment. The emails proved that O’Brien—to induce Mr. Mazzola to premature retire—directly conveyed, through a union attorney, that the City would demote Mazzola to patrol officer, brand him as a lying officer, and fire him.
The court's decision on the motion to reconsider is pending, but, as mentioned above, O'Brien will face trial regardless on the civil-liability-for-criminal-act claim under R.C. 2307.60 that O'Brien criminally interfered with Mr. Mazzola's constitutional rights.
A trial date has not yet been set.
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