Settlements include reinstatement of two officers fired after publicly challenging unlawful “$5 per hour” forced union dues scheme
Westerly, RI (March 4, 2020) – Westerly, Rhode Island-based police officers Scott Ferrigno, Darrell Koza, Raymond Morrone, Anthony Falcone, and Thomas Cimalore have just won favorable settlements in their cases challenging a forced union dues scheme between police union bosses and Town of Westerly officials. The officers also won favorable settlements for retaliation claims they brought after publicly challenging the unlawful arrangement.
With free legal aid from the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation and the Rhode Island-based Stephen Hopkins Center for Civil Rights, the five officers filed their federal lawsuit in July 2015 against the International Brotherhood of Police Officers Local 503 (IBPO) union and the Town of Westerly for seizing their money under an illegal “$5 per hour” forced union fee scheme.
The Town of Westerly and IBPO subjected the officers to this scheme despite them not being IBPO members or in a monopoly bargaining unit under the IBPO’s power. The officers’ now-settled cases also asserted that Town officials unconstitutionally retaliated against the officers, after they publicly voiced opposition to the policy, by implementing a plan to restrict their hours, and even firing two of the officers, Koza and Ferrigno.
Under the settlements, IBPO and the Town of Westerly agreed to pay almost $65,000 in refunds of union dues seized from the officers as part of the illegal policy and compensation for the officers’ other claims. The Town of Westerly will also reinstate Officers Koza and Ferrigno as police officers and they will receive nearly $48,000 in back pay from the Town for the period after they were terminated.
According to the lawsuits, IBPO bosses and the Town of Westerly began seizing $5 per hour from each of the five officers’ hourly pay without authorization in April 2014. IBPO and the Town perpetrated this scheme against the officers even though they were classified as “nonpermanent police officers” outside of the IBPO’s monopoly bargaining power.
Union officials didn’t even claim to “represent” the officers but still siphoned $5 per hour out of their paychecks without obtaining each officer’s written consent and authorization. The complaints also noted that the Town of Westerly and IBPO started seizing forced union fees from the officers even before executing the contract that formally established the unlawful deductions, and despite knowing that the officers were outside of the bargaining unit and had never authorized any payment of any money to the union.
Over the next six months, the officers repeatedly sought meetings with Town officials in an attempt to stop the flow of illegal dues, including the Town of Westerly’s payroll department, the Westerly Chief of Police, the Town Manager, and the Town Council, only to be rebuffed. Koza’s and Ferrigno’s lawsuits noted that Westerly’s Chief of Police had warned the officers “not to seek publicity for their cause” and that, if they were terminated, they could “easily be replaced with twenty other constables.” Court documents note that the IBPO informed the chief of police in an October 1, 2014 memo that the union would no longer allow reserve officers to work private duty detail assignments.
The Reserve Officers finally managed to present their objections to the Town Council, but the Town refused to stop the compulsory fees. On October 20, 2014, within a week of hearing that the reserve officers arranged a meeting with the Town Council to argue their objections to the forced fee scheme, the chief emailed the Town Manager informing her of his plan to terminate Koza and revise the system by which Westerly reserve officers could sign up to work traffic details. The chief revised the system and downgraded reserve officers’ priority level for taking on new traffic detail assignments, which, the five officers argued, limited the hours they could work and the pay they could earn.
Records disclosed during the litigation revealed that when the Town Council met with the Town Manager, chief of police, IBPO representatives, and other officials in November 2014, and discussed the reserve officers’ fight against the $5 per hour scheme and whether the Town might be in any legal jeopardy, one official opined, “It’s going to cost thousands and thousands of dollars … They’d have to take this money out of their pockets. I don’t think [their attorney] is going to represent them for free.” Another Town official at the time asserted, “If we say no, they’re probably going to back down.” When the officials considered whether the reserve officers would keep working for the Town, one council member commented, “They can always go to McDonald’s.”
In November 2014, the Westerly Sun published an article on the officers’ dispute with the Town and Union. The Town fired Koza the following month. Koza had never been disciplined by the Town before these events. But, according to Koza’s lawsuit, the Town attempted to justify his termination on the grounds that he had not immediately left his position directing traffic in a busy intersection to move his police cruiser for an officer attempting to drive through a restricted lane. The Town also cited Koza’s calling himself a “police officer” rather than a “reserve police officer” in his application for a handgun carry permit. Koza’s lawsuit points out that the Town’s charter then gave “nonpermanent police officers” like Koza the powers of regular police officers while on duty, and all of Koza’s references in his application called him a “reserve officer,” “reserve police officer,” and “reserve officer with the Westerly Police Department.”
The Town fired Ferrigno in May 2016. According to Ferrigno’s lawsuit, the Town alleged that he left a bicycle race detail assignment early. But Ferrigno contended that he actually stayed five minutes later than he was instructed to by his supervisor while waiting for his replacement to arrive. As further evidence that his firing was unconstitutional retaliation, Ferrigno’s lawsuit also noted that the officer who arrived late to relieve him was a union official, who was never even disciplined for his lateness.
The five officers filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court for the District of Rhode Island, arguing that IBPO and Town of Westerly officials had violated their First Amendment rights by forcing them to financially support the union when they were not even covered by its monopoly bargaining contract. The officers’ lawsuit also alleged that Town officials seized union dues without their individual written authorization in violation of Rhode Island’s wage deduction laws.
The lawsuit contended that the Town’s retaliation infringed on the officers’ First Amendment right to engage in “constitutionally-protected speech,” namely their advocacy against the illegal dues deductions. Officers Koza and Ferrigno filed their own complaints in the same court, charging the Town with firing them for exercising their First Amendment rights. The lawsuits also sought punitive damages.
Ultimately, rather than face the officers and their attorneys at trial, Town and Union officials agreed to settle the cases. The settlements order union officials to compensate the officers almost $20,000 dollars and Town officials to pay $45,000 for dues that were seized illegally under the “$5 per hour” policy and for other damages and claims. The settlements in Koza’s and Ferrigno’s cases, on top of requiring the Town to reinstate the two officers and pay back wages, require that all references related to the discipline forming the basis of their lawsuits be removed from their personnel records.
On February 6, 2020, the U.S. District Court for the District of Rhode Island entered a consent judgment permanently enjoining IBPO Local 503 from “adopting or enforcing any compulsory union fee requirement upon any constable or reserve officer employed by or performing work for the Town of Westerly without first obtaining his or her voluntary and affirmative consent and authorization, and his or her knowing and intelligent waiver of constitutional rights.”
Officer Thomas Cimalore commented, “The Town and the IBPO could have avoided the years and expense of litigation if they had only listened in 2014 when we first tried to tell them that they cannot just take $5 per hour from our pay and give it to the Union without our permission. We did all we could to avoid bringing a lawsuit. We made repeated unsuccessful attempts to present these issues to the sitting Town Council.”
Officer Cimalore continued: “When we did finally get the opportunity to address these issues to the sitting Town Council and to their successors on the following council, we showed them that deducting the $5 per hour violates the U.S. Constitution and state law. We had attorneys send letters explaining our rights, hoping that would make progress. But all of those efforts were to no avail. After unsuccessfully trying more than a year to resolve the matter, we were forced to go to federal court. We are happy the Town and the union finally decided to do the right thing.”
“Officers Ferrigno, Koza, Morrone, Falcone, and Cimalore fought a years-long legal battle against union officials just so they could keep their community safe while maintaining their own rights,” observed National Right to Work Foundation President Mark Mix. “The Foundation is proud to stand with them and all public servants who are targeted with intimidation, misinformation, threats of firing, and other illegal tactics simply to keep dues money flowing into the bank accounts of self-interested union officials.”
“Although the dues scheme at issue in these cases was always blatantly illegal, the fact is, while this case was being litigated the 2018 Foundation-won Janus v. AFSCME decision was issued, which now guarantees all public workers a First Amendment right not to subsidize union officials’ activities,” continued Mix. “Even with the added protection provided by the Janus decision, Rhode Island legislators should look to these and other examples of union boss malfeasance as examples of why all Ocean State workers – public or private – need Right to Work protections to ensure that union membership and financial support are strictly voluntary.”
The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation is a nonprofit, charitable organization providing free legal aid to employees whose human or civil rights have been violated by compulsory unionism abuses. The Foundation, which can be contacted toll-free at 1-800-336-3600, assists thousands of employees in more than 250 cases nationwide per year.