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First Circuit Upholds $500,000 Award for Whistle-Blowing Boston Guard

by Matthew T. Clarke

On March 29, 2005, the First Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a $500,000 jury award in favor of a former guard at a Boston jail who was harassed by fellow guards after he reported the misconduct of another jail employee.

Bruce Baron was a guard at the Suffolk County House of Corrections, a hotbed of prisoner abuse [PLN, Dec. 2003, p. 21], from 1995 until 1997. In January 1997 he and a sergeant observed on a monitor another guard playing cards with prisoners. The sergeant ordered Baron to report the incident to a deputy superintendent, which he did. The guard was suspended for three days.

Thereafter, other guards began harassing Baron, shunning him at roll calls and calling him a "rat." Mocking posters of Baron appeared throughout the prison, some of which accused him of child molestation. While parked at the prison, Baron's car was smeared with feces and the tires were slashed.

Daniel Hickey was the worst harasser. He called Baron a "rat" in front of other employees and prisoners, threw cheese onto Baron's plate, saying, "excuse me, this is for the rat fink," and called Baron a "low down Jewish rat bastard."

Baron's numerous complaints to supervisors were ignored. Instead, the supervisors gave Baron draconian punishment for minor policy violations.
The workplace stress caused him to collapse at work and led to marital problems. Realizing he was about to be harshly punished for reporting the sexual assault of a female prisoner by her boyfriend directly to the police (instead of through the jail's chain of command), Baron resigned.
He filed a civil rights suit against Hickey, Sheriff Rouse and the Sheriff's Department in Suffolk County Superior Court, alleging he suffered retaliatory harassment for breaking the department's code of silence which forced him to quit his job in violation of his First Amendment rights, due process rights and state law. The case was removed to federal court in January 2001.

Following a four-day jury trial, Baron was awarded $500,000 in damages against the Sheriff's Department. The jury did not award any damages against Hickey, but did find that he interfered with a contractual relationship. Baron v. Hickey, 292 F.Supp.2d 248 (D.Mass. 2003) [PLN, Feb. 2005, p.19]. The department appealed.

The First Circuit held that Baron's reports of harassment for breaking the code of silence was First Amendment-protected speech and the public had an interest in such internal workings of the Sheriff's Department, judging from newspaper articles regarding problems at the department. The appellate court found that the admission of the jail's then third-in-command, Deputy Superintendent Richard Feeney, of knowing about the code of silence and the consequences for breaking it, was sufficient to establish that the Sheriff's Department knew of it and failed to correct it. This made such inaction a custom of the Sheriff's Department. Thus, the department was liable for the constitutional deprivation.

The harsh punishment for minor policy infractions and lack of proper investigation into the reports of harassment and property damage also supported the conclusion that Baron was constructively discharged from his employment. Baron did not prove that Rouse, the final policymaker, had actual knowledge of the custom of condoning the code of silence.
However, Baron proved that such custom was so widespread that Rouse should have known of it.

Although Baron did not offer much evidence of economic damage, he did offer ample evidence of emotional suffering and emotional distress, justifying the $500,000 damage award. Therefore, the First Circuit affirmed the judgment and award. See: Baron v. Suffolk County Sheriff's Department, 402 F.3d 225 (1st Cir. 2005).

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Related legal case

Baron v. Suffolk County Sheriff's Department