A former Connecticut state trooper has won a $260,500 settlement in a federal lawsuit against the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection (DESPP) and the Connecticut State Police Union (CSPU) over claims he was demoted and retaliated against for refusing to pay dues to support the union’s political activities, according to a press release from the National Right to Work Foundation (NRTW).
State Trooper Joseph Mercer alleged in 2016 that CSPU President Andrew Matthews and DESPP Commissioner Dora Schriro conspired to remove him from the position of operations sergeant of the emergency services unit and into a position that offered less overtime opportunities and less time in the field.
When Mercer became operations sergeant in 2015, Matthews filed a grievance against his appointment because there was no selection process for the position. Matthews then filed another grievance for Mercer’s handling of a deadly incident involving an armed suspect barricaded in a hotel in Old Saybrook.
He was later removed from his position following a threat by union to hold a press conference over the handling of the incident in Old Saybrook, according to court documents. He was given an “administrative post,” with the Office of Counter Terrorism, which did not afford as many overtime opportunities.
Mercer was replaced with a union member, also without a selection process. Mercer filed suit in 2016 claiming Matthews and Schriro had conspired to remove him because he had resigned his union membership in 2014 and seeking lost wages and overtime. An attorney for the Connecticut State Police Union at the time called the lawsuit “frivolous.”
“It’s disgraceful that CSPU union officials targeted Mercer, a dedicated public safety officer, with such a vicious retribution scheme in the first place,” said National Right to Work Foundation President Mark Mix. “Public servants should not have to endure multi-year lawsuits just so they can refrain from supporting union politics they oppose.”
Although the state and union attempted to dismiss the case in 2018, the federal district court allowed it to move forward and in 2022 ordered current DESPP Commissioner James Rovella to turn over additional discovery, eventually resulting in a settlement agreement of $260,500.
Mercer was one of four state troopers who filed a lawsuit in federal court in 2015, alleging they were forced to pay full union dues despite having resigned membership, meaning they would only pay a portion of the dues, known as agency fees.
National Right to Work said the case is illustrative of why their victory in the U.S. Supreme Court case of Janus v. AFSCME is important. The Janus decision overturned the 1977 Abood v. Detroit Board of Education precedent which had required union dues or agency fees to be paid by public-sector employees to unions as a condition of employment.
Under the 2018 First Amendment decision, public-sector employees do not have to pay a union in order to keep their jobs.
“As was obvious in Mercer’s case, unelected public sector union bosses often wield their enormous clout over government to serve the union’s private interests over the public interest,” Mix said. “That’s why it’s vital that public employees can exercise their First Amendment Janus right to cut off all financial support of union bosses who are contorting government in this way.”
Connecticut’s public-sector unions have been pushing back against the Janus decision. In 2022 the General Assembly approved legislation giving public-sector unions greater access to new state employees and restricting when public-sector employees can resign their union membership under provision outlined on union membership cards, a legally gray area under the Janus decision that has yet to be decided in the courts.
The CSPU is not part of the State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition (SEBAC), which is comprised of most of Connecticut’s state government unions, and negotiates its contracts separately from SEBAC, but generally follows precedents set by the larger union conglomerate.
The Connecticut State Police have been beset by challenges over recent years, largely tied to staffing levels which have continued to decrease resulting in massive amounts of overtime worked by state troopers.
This year, lawmakers approved a new $70 million union contract for CSPU which included raises and bonuses in an effort to recruit more troopers following a high number of retirements and low recruitment.
Matthews is no longer union president, having been replaced with Todd Fedigan. Matthews now serves as executive director and counsel for CSPU, according to their website. Mercer retired from the State Police in 2017 and is currently collecting a pension worth $85,089.36 in 2022, according to state data.
“We at the Foundation are proud to have defended Sergeant Mercer’s rights and secured him a settlement that vindicates his free association,” Mix said.