It will be up to a jury to decide whether former Bethlehem police officer Christopher Hughes faced a hostile work environment for expressing what he argues was protected speech.
Judge Gary Sharpe issued a ruling on Friday, March 29, rejecting a motion for summary judgment on behalf of the town. In the decision, Sharpe wrote the defendants had not shown sufficient evidence that Hughes’ 2010 lawsuit against the town and Police Chief Louis Corsi was without merit.
Hughes alleged in his lawsuit he faced a hostile work environment and retaliatory action for “expressing protected speech.” The ex-officer is best known for going public in 2009 with allegations Corsi uttered a racial slur. His claims touched off an internal town investigation that ended in the discovery of the taped conversation and a 10-day suspension for the police chief.
In the time period surrounding those events, Hughes was stripped of his badge and gun, issued suspensions that were later overturned and was sent to a mental health evaluation. At issue in the lawsuit is whether those disciplinary actions were in response to Hughes expressing free speech protected by the First Amendment, or for other behavioral issues.
“Although the letters and complaints made by Hughes permeate a tone of hostility, and the timing of their filing, as well as the remoteness in time of certain about which they protest suggest a less than altruistic motive underlying their disclosure, they nevertheless touch on issues of public concern,” and are thus protected speech, Sharpe wrote in his decision.
The case will now be scheduled to be heard by a jury. Though he could not immediately be reached for comment, Michael Sussman, Hughes’ attorney, previously told The Spotlight his client is prepared for a trial.
Thomas O’Connor, of the Napierski, Vandenburgh Law Firm, which is representing the town and Corsi, said he’s still reviewing the decision.
“We’re reviewing it to determine whether there should be an immediate appeal,” he said.
O’Connor said there has been no discussion with town officials about the possibility of a settlement.
Hughes was placed on a paid medical leave around the time of the town’s 2009 internal investigation, and remained on leave until he was fired last year following a conviction for possessing a fake police identification card. He was sentenced to probation in that case.