Prison employee sues Department of Correction in Confederate flag case

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Montville — A longtime employee of the Department of Correction is claiming in a federal lawsuit that she was disciplined after complaining about a correction officer's Confederate flag license plate being displayed prominently near the entrance of the Corrigan-Radgowski Correctional Institution.

Carla Moore of Columbia, who is African American, has worked for the DOC for about 25 years as a correctional identification and records specialist. The lawsuit, filed on July 8 in U.S. District Court in New Haven, claims she was subjected to a hostile work environment, retaliated against when she complained and that her rights to free speech were violated. 

Department of Correction spokesman Andrius Banevicius said the agency does not comment on pending litigation.

Reached by phone Thursday, Moore politely referred questions to her attorney, John R. Williams of New Haven, a veteran lawyer in the civil rights arena. 

The Confederate flag's place in society has been hotly debated for years, especially following the 2015 murders of nine African American church-goers in South Carolina who were killed by a young white supremacist who had posed with the flag. Some consider it a symbol of hate, while others defend it as an emblem of Southern heritage.

Connecticut does not issue license plates depicting the Confederate flag, but some Southern states do, and novelty license plates are widely available.

Moore walked by the correction officer's pickup truck for most of 2018 before she complained, according to Williams.

Williams said the officer was allowed to park in an unauthorized spot adjacent to the entrance off Route 32 of the Radgowski building, where an American flag is flown. He said the officer would back into the parking place so that the Confederate flag license plate was displayed beside the American flag "to confront anyone entering the facility." 

"Number one, you're parking in an unauthorized spot, and number two, displaying a Confederate symbol in a facility where you have custody of a predominantly African American population is simply unacceptable,"  Williams said.

He said there is a solid recent history of permitted disciplinary actions against government employees, especially those in law enforcement, who engage in offensive behavior. He cited the case of border patrol employees who are being investigated and disciplined after making derogatory and sexually degrading comments about Central American migrants on a Facebook forum.

His client tried to work out the situation without taking it public, Williams said. When it became apparent that the Confederate flag was not just being displayed on occasion, but was becoming a permanent fixture, she complained to superiors. Shortly after that, the lawsuit says, she was approached in her office by a white supervisor "in a physically threatening manner, screaming and pointing at her."

Moore complained to superiors and said she was suspended without pay for a day in retaliation. It was the first time in her 25-year career that she had received any discipline, according to the lawsuit.

She took the issue to the Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities, which held a remediation hearing at its Norwich office, Williams said. He said the mediator asked the DOC to remedy the situation, either by telling the correction officer to stop displaying the flag or taking back the one-day suspension without pay, but they offered Moore "zero," Williams said.

Now she is seeking compensatory and punitive damages, along with attorney's fees, in the federal lawsuit. 

The case is before U.S. District Judge Victor A. Bolden, whose biography indicates he served as a staff attorney for four years with the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation's National Legal Department. 

A spokeswoman for the ACLU's Connecticut office declined to weigh in on the issue Thursday, saying she needed more information.

Attorney Daniel A. Schwartz, a partner at the Shipman & Goodwin law firm who specializes in employment law, said courts have not said that seeing a Confederate flag in isolation is enough to establish a claim of a hostile work environment.

"It would be hard to see that a court would find having a license plate is somehow violating someone else's rights," Schwartz said. "When an employee is doing something that is perfectly legal, it's hard to see how a court would find that behavior rises to the level of a hostile work environment."

If the state were displaying a Confederate flag, that would be a different issue, Schwartz said, since many people find it offensive.

k.florin@theday.com

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