DENVER (CN) - Top cops in suburban Denver must face a former sergeant's claim that he was fired in retaliation for starting a union, the 10th Circuit ruled.
Patrick Cillo and the International Union of Police Associations had sued the city of Greenwood Village, Police Chief Donnie Perry, Lt. Joseph Harvey and City Manager James Sanderson in 2010.
Cillo's complaint took aim at the Fraternal Order of Police, a non-union organization that does not promote collective bargaining, claiming it and Perry targeted him after the local police union chapter he started gained traction in the department.
A federal judge nevertheless granted the defendants summary judgment after finding that Cillo failed to tie his firing to his union affiliation.
The 10th Circuit strongly disagreed last week, pointing to "troubling" evidence from Cillo that clearly suggests a bias against union membership by police leadership.
Cillo had been one of three officers fired over a 2009 incident of excessive force at a Motel 6, but the same department failed to serve any serious discipline when members of the Fraternal Order made similar mistakes in Roundtree a year earlier.
"The incidents at Roundtree and the Motel 6 were strikingly similar," Judge Scott Matheson Jr. wrote for the court. "In both cases, Chief Perry found officers committed an unlawful entry and used unlawful force. In both cases, ranking officers at the scene failed to prevent these violations. But in spite of this, Chief Perry chose not to discipline the Roundtree leadership team. In contrast, he fired the Motel 6 leadership team for essentially the same mistake. A reasonable jury could find that the disparate punishments were motivated by the fact that the three lieutenants at Roundtree were all current or former FOP members, while the two sergeants in charge at the Motel 6 were Union members."
Another factor that the appellate panel deemed relevant was that union membership had surpassed or was about to surpass FOP membership in the months leading up to Cillo's firing.
"In light of the foregoing evidence and the temporal proximity between the Motel 6 incident and the tipping point in Union/FOP membership levels, a reasonable jury could conclude that (1) defendants deliberately overreacted to Sgt. Cillo's mistakes at the Motel 6 because of his union association, and (2) they wanted to remove his influence at GVPD and stem the Union's growth," Matheson wrote.
Cillo's complaint portrays Perry, the police chief, as a proud member of the Fraternal Order of Police who loudly voiced his displeasure for Cillo's union activities during roll call and employee meetings.
"Chief Perry told the Command Staff and individual rank-and-file officers that the Union was divisive and bad for the department," according to the court's summary of the case. "He claimed that Sgt. Cillo had formed the union as a way to get himself promoted and was taking advantage of Union members. Chief Perry insisted the FOP was a better organization. And he rejected the Union's goal of collective bargaining, saying that if the city ever agreed to bargain collectively, the employee association with the most members would control the bargaining process - which Chief Perry asserted would be the FOP, not the union."
Judges Monroe McKay and David Ebel also sat on the appellate panel.