Holyoke City Council approves $115K in civil rights, discrimination settlements

  • Holyoke City Hall.   GAZETTE FILE PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 2/6/2020 3:54:41 PM
Modified: 2/6/2020 3:54:31 PM

HOLYOKE — The City Council on Tuesday voted overwhelmingly to approve two legal settlements, totaling $115,000, in a federal police brutality lawsuit as well as a case before the state’s Commission Against Discrimination.

The Council voted unanimously, with one abstention, to approve the $65,000 settlement of a federal civil rights lawsuit that accused Holyoke police of beating a 12-year-old boy unconscious in 2014. City councilors also voted 11 to 1 to approve a $50,000 settlement in a discrimination case against the Department of Public Works, or DPW, dating back to 2010. That settlement will be paid in two installments over two years. 

The civil rights case was filed by the family of a boy who was 12 when, according to the lawsuit, police who were responding to a call of shots fired slammed the boy to the ground, beat him, knocked him unconscious and scraped his face against the road before arresting him. All charges were later dropped.

The $65,000 settlement does not require the Holyoke Police Department to admit any wrongdoing, At-Large Councilor Joe McGiverin said on Tuesday. Beyond that, however, there was little discussion of the case. 

The Council approved the transfer of the settlement money out of its stabilization account with 11 “yes” votes. At-large Councilor James Leahy abstained from the vote and discussion because he has a family member on the police force. Ward 1 Councilor Gladys Lebron-Martinez was not present at the meeting.

The Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, or MCAD, case dates back to December 2009. An employee of the city’s Department of Public Works, John Gates, alleged that higher-ups retaliated against him for filing a union complaint over “verbal harassment” from a supervisor, according to MCAD filings obtained by the Gazette through a public records request.

Gates alleged that after filing a complaint against that supervisor, the department changed his assignments in retaliation and that the DPW superintendent failed to follow up on his complaint. 

Gates said that he later hurt his elbow on the job and alleged that the DPW told him they did not have modified work to give him. He said the DPW then accused him of workers’ compensation fraud and attempted to force him to resign. He accused the department of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act as well as labor law.

In a subsequent complaint filed in June 2010, Gates alleged that he met with DPW management in order to be reinstated, providing them with medical documentation indicating he could perform his essential job functions. Two days later, he said, he was terminated.

In its own response detailed in the MCAD filings, the city alleged that Gates’ injury prevented him from performing the essential functions of his job, with or without accommodation. The city said it conducted an investigation that allegedly indicated Gates had “work capacity far greater than he was reporting to the treating doctors.”

The City Council’s Finance Committee discussed the case in executive session at a recent meeting. In discussion before the full City Council on Tuesday, McGiverin, who is the chairman of the Finance Committee, said that the city has already spent as much as $40,000 in legal fees on that case and would likely have to spend another $40,000 if it wanted to fight it. 

“Back in 2010 when this all started, the city did have a leg to stand on, but over time a number of things have happened,” McGiverin said. He noted that if the city lost the case, it could be liable for some $250,000 in back salary and benefits to Gates. “With that in mind, the committee’s recommendation is that we pass the $25,000 allowing ... the mayor to settle this with MCAD.”

The City Council will have to take a second vote next year to approve the additional $25,000 payment for the settlement.

In discussion prior to the vote, some city councilors expressed frustration at the way the case had played out.

Ward 3 Councilor David Bartley said that he doesn’t believe the plaintiff should get anything but that he would defer to the city’s legal counsel, which advised the city to settle the case. Bartley was also frustrated that the case took 10 years to resolve. 

“How do you explain the [city’s] law department from 2010 to 2015 doing nothing?” Bartley asked. “How does that happen? There is no explanation for it, but it did happen.”

At-Large Councilor Michael Sullivan cast the lone “no” vote against the settlement. He called the case “one of the most frivolous, ridiculous suits” he has seen in his time on the City Council. 

“At some point, we have to take a stand,” he said. “If we don’t take a stand, more and more and more of these will continue to come before us because everyone out there knows the city will settle.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.

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