Whistleblower’s Report Is Protected Perceived Speech

Written on 01/05/2024

Anthony Zona is a police officer with the Town of Stratford, Connecti­cut. Zona had a long-running feud with Lieutenant Santos, which began in 2019 when they ran against each other in a contentious race for union president. Santos won the election. In late 2019, Zona received a written warning for an interaction between him and a sergeant. Santos indicated that the Union would not file a grievance on Zona’s behalf.

Zona began to investigate rumors that Santos was having an affair with a female dispatcher, staring at them when they were together, and filing a Freedom of Information request for Santos’ radio communications and GPS records. Zona and Santos filed written complaints about one another, prompting a formal investigation on March 17, 2020.

On March 21, 2020, Zona arrested a suspect in connection with a shooting. Shortly thereafter, Zona was placed on paid administrative leave as a result of Santos’ written complaint. The police chief later testified that he placed Zona on leave in order to prevent a violent confrontation between the two men. On March 23, 2020, while Zona was on leave, six police officers, including Santos, were involved in an altercation with the shooting suspect in his hold­ing cell. The suspect was taken to the hospital and suffered internal injuries.

On April 14, 2020, the police chief was made aware of a federal grand jury subpoena for records regarding the March 23 incident. Rumors cir­culated around the police department that Zona had contacted the FBI to retaliate against Santos. Zona claims not to have called the FBI, and the Department had no proof that he did. On July 27, 2020, the chief suspended Zona for 15 days for insubordination. The chief based this discipline on events beginning in 2017, but mostly Zona’s recent, public confrontations with his superiors. Zona sued the Department, alleging that the chief’s reason for the suspension was pretextual, and that he was truly suspended in retaliation for his perceived report to the FBI of the March 23 incident. Zona sued under a Connecticut law prohibiting employee discipline for the exercise of First Amendment rights.

The Department moved for sum­mary judgment, arguing that the law did not apply here because neither party proved that Zona in fact reported the March 23 incident to the FBI. In other words, the statute did not protect against discipline for perceived speech. The Court rejected this argument and concluded that perceived speech was protected by the statute. In so doing, it looked to federal court decisions inter­preting similar federal statutes, which concluded that the employer’s motives – to infringe on First Amendment rights – were the critical factor. Under the Connecticut law, an employee is entitled to statutory protection from discipline for exercising his or her First Amendment rights – even where the employer incorrectly believes that the employee exercised those rights if the employer intends to restrict the employ­ee’s First Amendment rights. In this case, the Court could not rule out the Department’s improper motive behind Zona’s discipline – to punish him for his perceived FBI report – and denied the Department’s motion for summary judgment.

Zona v. Town of Stratford, 2023 WL 6307311 (Conn. Super. Ct.).