Federal judge says estate of dead officer can sue East Haven
A federal judge in New Haven has ruled that East Haven leaders, including Mayor Joseph Maturo Jr, as well as the current and former police chiefs, may have promoted an atmosphere of retaliation against a former town police officer who died earlier this year.
The attorney for Vincent Ferrara, who was fired a few months before his death in May, said he is encouraged by U.S. District Court Judge Janet C. Hall’s rejection of the town’s attempts to overturn the lawsuit, which alleges that the retribution following the historic 2012 federal investigation of the East Haven Police Department was a violation of his civil rights.
Hall wrote that in their role as policy makers, Maturo, current Police Chief Edward Lennon and Brent Larrabee, the former chief, will remain as defendants.
Ferrara who was fired from the department in January, lived the final year of his life without pay as he fought a deadly former of brain cancer called glioblastoma.
James Brewer, a Hartford attorney who represented Ferrara and now his estate, was pleased with the court decision.
“I am sad that Vince was not here to see this ruling,” Brewer said in a statement. “The destruction of his career for confronting corruption hurt him very much. Vince Ferrara was an honorable, honest police officer who would not tolerate corruption. He will have his day in court now, and the whole story of these defendants’ shameful and malicious retaliation will be further exposed.”
Hugh Keefe, a New Haven attorney who represents East Haven, said Tuesday that his clients are studying the decision. “The town is looking at the case carefully, with a view toward a possible appeal,” he said in a brief phone interview.
In the town’s agreement with the Department of Justice that expired in late 2017, Maturo vowed not to retaliate against local law-enforcement members who might have assisted in uncovering cases of mistreatment of minorities against the town and police. Ferrara claimed that days after he filed his suit in March of 2017, retaliatory acts escalated. In one case, an officer pointed a gun at Ferrara’s chest.
“Given the particular circumstances at issue here, including the unique factor of expiring federal oversight shortly before the alleged retaliation, a jury could reasonably find a causal connection between Ferrara’s filing of this action and the alleged retaliation against him,” Hall wrote in a 33-page decision last week.
During the federal investigation, four officers, John Miller, David Cari, Dennis Spaulding and Jason Zullo, were found guilty of civil rights violations — including the assault of a handcuffed prisoner — and were sentenced to prison terms ranging from four months for Miller, to 60 months for Spaulding.
Ferrara said that federal law enforcement did little to shield his identity during the investigation, and nothing to help him when the alleged retaliation occurred. The estate also alleges that town officials violated Ferrara’s rights under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act when his pay was halted in August 2018 without scheduling a hearing on the issue. He had been on paid suspension since December 2017, around the time his tumor was diagnosed.
Toward the end of 2010, three years after Ferrara joined to department, the FBI started a criminal investigation into claims that department routinely used excessive force, unconstitutional searches and biased policing, Hall’s ruling noted. Ferrara met with FBI agents at least eight times and became registered as a so-called confidential human source. In February of 2011 Ferrara testified before a federal grand jury.
At the end of the federal probe in November 2012, the Department of Justice gave a letter to Maturo expressing “grave concerns” that police leaders were creating a “hostile and intimidating environment” for those willing to help the investigation, and that those who helped were subject to intimidation and retaliation. The town agreed to an order to improve its policing, and prohibited all forms of retaliation.
Hall decision noted that when Ferrara’s application to join a Drug Enforcement Administration task force was rejected by Larrabee, the then-chief later testified in a sworn deposition that the other finalist for the position was a “team player” and had a better interview.
Hall said that a jury could infer from Larrabee’s testimony that Ferrara’s rejection was based on Larrabee’s opinion that Ferrara was not a team player.
“The jury could also reasonably infer from the evidence that Larrabee’s view of Ferrara - as not being a team player - was influenced by Ferrara’s participation in the federal investigation of the EHPD,” Hall wrote. “If a jury was to so find, it could reasonably conclude that the denial of the position on the DEA task force was based in substantial part on Ferrara’s protected conduct of assisting the investigation of the EHPD.”
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