WORCESTER – The Supreme Court of Justice on Thursday upheld an award of $ 885,000 a jury awarded to a former Millbury select, who alleged the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office fired him in retaliation for reporting illegal campaign activities in the prison during the 2010 elections.
“The plaintiff presented sufficient evidence that the sheriff’s office retaliated against him for opposing such participation in unlawful behavior,” the judges wrote in a 19-page ruling that left the amended ruling intact of a 2018 judge.
The plaintiff, former Millbury coach Jude Cristo, sued the sheriff’s office in 2011, alleging he was fired for complaining about prison employee Scot Bove campaigning for the sheriff during his working time.
Cristo alleged he was fired days after new Sheriff Lewis Evangelidis gave him a cold shoulder during his inauguration. Cristo said he backed Evangelidis’ opponent in the general election, at his own pace.
Evangelidis testified at trial that Cristo’s firing was recommended to him by Shawn Jenkins, then the special sheriff, as part of a money-saving job consolidation. Jenkins was the man who Cristo said failed to act on his complaint before Evangelidis was elected.
Jenkins, now a Middlesex County Special Sheriff, struggled to remember the answers to many questions at the booth in 2018. He said he looked into the complaints but found them unfounded.
A jury eventually sided with Cristo, but not before a long, winding process.
Evangelidis himself was dismissed in the case on qualified immunity grounds in 2016, the SJC noted, but enough of the case has survived to stand trial.
A jury initially found the sheriff’s office in January 2018, but a new trial was ordered after the judge admitted an error of law. The second jury found for Cristo.
Both sides appealed against the verdict, with Cristo arguing that a judge should have tripled the damages awarded to him, and the sheriff’s department arguing that Cristo’s case had not been proven under the law.
Lawyers for the sheriff argued Cristo was not eligible for whistleblower protection because he did not file a written complaint before filing an oral complaint.
The SJC found the argument “illogical”, saying that if the law were interpreted as lawyers suggest, it would be “literally impossible” for an employee to comply with the requirement.
At the same time, the SJC refused to triple Cristo’s jury price, ruling that the trial judge was reasonable in determining that the evidence “did not suggest that Sheriff Evangelidis’ decision to fire the plaintiff was so outrageous as to it suggested an underlying evil design ”.
Evangelidis was not available for an interview Thursday, prison superintendent David W. Tuttle said as he attended a meeting of the Massachusetts Sheriffs’ Association.
In a statement, Evangelidis said he “had never known Jude Cristo before becoming sheriff” and had “no memory of meeting him among the hundreds of people who attended my first inauguration. 10 years ago”.
“Sometimes the juries get it wrong,” wrote Evangelidis. “In that case, I believe they did.”
Evangelidis said the first time he heard about Cristo’s complaint was when filing the complaint. Tuttle told the Telegram & Gazette that Evangelidis first showed up on a platform that included eliminating patronage in the prison and kept its word.
“This is one of the mess that remains for us to clean up,” he said, stressing that Evangelidis had been personally removed from his post.
Cristo’s attorney, Timothy M. Burke, said the ruling – which faced a conflicting federal opinion – was significant in that it reaffirms the right of employees to report wrongdoing.
“The case really empowers public servants to do the right thing if they witness improper conduct on the part of public employers,” he said Thursday.
The law prohibits public employees from engaging in political activities using public resources or during their working time.
Bove retired shortly after the 2010 election.
Contact Brad Petrishen at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BPetrishenTG.