No Whistleblower Claim Where Town Officials Acted Promptly To Plaintiff’s Clarion Call: Bruno v. Town of Framingham, 2009 WL 4062177 (D. Mass.)
Pierce, Davis & Perritano, LLP defended the Town of Framingham and several school officials in a civil rights action brought by Franco Bruno, the former girls varsity soccer coach at Framingham High School. Bruno claimed that he was suspended for going to the press with his concerns about having student-athletes carrying soccer goals to and from practice.
In the Fall of 2006, Bruno advised the school’s Principal, Michael Welch, and Athletic Director, Gary Doherty, that older soccer goals have been known to tip over, causing severe head injuries to student-athletes, and that he would not allow “his girls” to carry them. The Department of Parks and Recreation maintains the athletic fields used by the school’s soccer teams, and requires the teams to properly secure their soccer goals at the end of each practice. Far from taking any retaliatory action against Bruno, Welch directed Doherty to make sure that the girls soccer teams were not transporting soccer goals, and, moreover, authorized Doherty to purchase new, lighter weight goals with wheels. Welch also instructed Bruno to speak directly to Doherty about any future concerns with the Department of Parks and Recreation.
A year later, Bruno asked for and obtained approval from Welch to appear on Fox News, in connection with a story about soccer goal safety. Welch reminded Bruno that he should not publicly air his own personal grievances with the Department of Parks and Recreation’s Director, Robert Merusi. When the Fox News story aired, it did not contain any reference to Merusi or the Department. Shortly thereafter, however, Bruno gave another interview, without Welch’s knowledge, to the MetroWest Daily News. In addition to discussing soccer goal safety, Bruno made a number of unfavorable comments about the Department of Parks and Recreation. Subsequently, Welch suspended Bruno for the first four games of the Fall 2008 soccer season. Believing that he had been constructively discharged by this suspension, Bruno resigned his position with the school. In January 2008, another person was hired for Bruno’s former coaching position. Bruno subsequently filed suit in the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts, claiming violations of, inter alia, his First Amendment rights and the Massachusetts Whistleblower’s Statute, M.G.L. c. 149, § 185.
PD &P moved for summary judgment on all counts. The District Court (Sorokin, J.) dismissed each of Bruno’s claims in a 29-page decision. With respect to Bruno’s First Amendment claim, the District Court adopted the test established by the Supreme Court in Garcetti v. Ceballos, 547 U.S. 410 (2006), to determine the scope of First Amendment constitutional protections afforded to public employees. The Court then compared Bruno’s First Amendment interest in airing his concerns about the Department of Parks and Recreation against the school officials’ interest in the efficient operation of the Department’s athletic programs. The District Court concluded that, given the interference to the soccer program caused by Bruno’s continued disagreements with employees of the Department of Parks and Recreation, school officials’ interest in maintaining the smooth and safe operation of the soccer program outweighed Bruno’s interest in speaking out. The District Court also dismissed Bruno’s claim under the Massachusetts Whistleblower’s Statute and held that the school officials were entitled to qualified immunity.
The Bruno decision is a reminder to defense attorneys that, despite the stringent protections of the First Amendment, the importance of efficiently managing schools and other governmental entities is not to be underestimated.