The Board of Selectmen scheduled a special, closed session to start at 5:00 pm on Tuesday, December 15, well in advance of a regular meeting starting a 7:30 pm. The purpose, generally lawful for a closed session, is litigation strategy. In a departure from usual practice, the board’s agenda specifies the focus: a civil rights lawsuit recently filed against the Town of Brookline and others, including individuals.
Gerald Alston, a Brookline firefighter who has been on extended leave, began disputes with the Town of Brookline more than five years ago, after his supervisor allegedly made an insulting comment that was recorded in a telephone message. The case has gone from an internal report to a complaint filed with a state agency, to a suit filed in a state superior court and most recently to a federal civil rights suit.
Parties: Mr. Alston’s civil right lawsuit was filed Tuesday, December 1 by Brooks A. Ames, a Brookline lawyer whose wife, Mariela Ames, is a Precinct 15 town meeting member. It is directed at the town, at the Board of Selectmen, at an employee union, at two town employees and at six Brookline residents who are or have been involved with town government–as follows (from official court records):
• Defendant, Town of Brookline
• Defendant, Board of Selectmen of the Town of Brookline
• Defendant, Betsy DeWitt, In her Individual and Official Capacities
• Defendant, Ken Goldstein, In her [sic] Individual and Official Capacities
• Defendant, Nancy Daly, In her Individual and Official Capacities
• Defendant, Jesse Mermell, In her Individual and Official Capacities
• Defendant, Stanley Spiegel
• Defendant, Sandra DeBow, In her Individual and Official Capacities
• Defendant, Joslin Murphy, In her Individual and Official Capacities
• Defendant, Local 950, International Association of Firefighters
• Defendant, Neil Wishinsky, In his Individual and Official Capacities
• Assigned to: Judge George A. OToole, Jr.
• Cause: 42: 1983 Civil Rights Act
Ms. DeWitt, Mr. Goldstein and Ms. Mermell were members of the Board of Selectmen during some of the events alleged in the complaint filed in federal district court. Ms. Daly and Mr. Wishinsky are current members of the Board of Selectmen. Dr. Spiegel is a Precinct 2 town meeting member and a member of the Advisory Committee. Ms. Murphy is the town counsel. Ms. DeBow, now Ms. DeBow-Huang, is director of the town’s Human Resources office. Local 950 represents Brookline’s firefighters in collective bargaining and labor disputes.
Court filing and allegations: Mr. Alston’s court filing alleges that the Town of Brookline has a longstanding pattern of racial injustice in labor practices. [Court filing, paragraph 1]
“He brings this case on behalf of himself and all others who have been damaged by Brookline’s longstanding and well-established policy, custom and practice of opposing racial equality, enforcing racial subordination, engaging in affirmative action and favoritism towards white residents and employees, and retaliating against persons who protest racial discrimination.” [Court filing, paragraph 1]
Mr. Alston’s court filing alleges the insult that it says began a sequence of disputes occurred when his supervisor in 2010 “was upset that Mr. Alston had gone out on an injury leave.” It says that the former supervisor had believed, “without any evidence or basis in fact, that Mr. Alston had faked an injury.” The injury in 2010 was confirmed by medical records, it claims. [Court filing, paragraphs 2 and 77]
After Mr. Alston wrote a report about the incident, the court filing says, “Brookline took no action except to inform [the former supervisor] that Mr. Alston had made a complaint.” Afterward, the court filing claims, “Brookline’s Board of Selectmen protected [the former supervisor] from any adverse consequences, pursuant to policy.” [Court filing, paragraph 5]
The remainder of the 55-page court filing recounts a perverse litany of protests and rebuffs that it says illustrates a longstanding pattern of racial injustice in labor practices. For example, it claims that “Brookline fought to prevent the civil rights commission charged with enforcing the Town’s bylaw against racial discrimination from fulfilling its charge to investigate and resolve complaints.” [Court filing, paragraph 12]
“The Town of Brookline’s policy of disregarding the Fourteenth Amendment [due process and equal protection] is enforced by the Brookline Board of Selectmen through their agents in the Town administration, including but not limited to the office of town counsel, the town administrator, the department of human resources and other town department heads. The Town of Brookline’s policy is also enforced by the town moderator, town meeting, the school committee and the superintendent.” [Court filing, paragraph 32]
The former Human Relations/Youth Resources Commission was disbanded through actions at the 2014 annual town meeting under Article 10. A replacement group created under that article is called the Diversity, Inclusion and Community Relations Commission. There is a correspondingly named town department. Unlike the former commission, the current commission lacks authority to investigate labor complaints such as Mr. Alston’s.
In the course of working through administrative channels, the court filing alleges that Mr. Alston met with resistance, saying, “While the investigation was ongoing, the Town pressured Mr. Alston to agree to drop his complaint…Mr. Alston told the director that he wanted the Town to follow its policies. The human resources director called Mr. Alston an ‘asshole’ and hung up on him.” [Court filing, paragraph 87]
“Several years later…based on public pressure, the Town relented and placed Mr. Alston on a paid administrative leave. That paid leave has now extended for nine months and constitutes an acknowledgment by the Town that the Town’s racially hostile environment is the fundamental obstacle to his safe return to work. [Court filing, paragraph 100]
In the court filing, Mr. Alston is seeking from the U.S. District Court for Massachusetts a declaration “that the Defendants violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.” He also seeks “damages sufficient to compensate Plaintiff, in an amount to be proven at trial” and punitive damages. The filing seeks class action certification and “a reparations fund for persons harmed by the Town’s policy.” [Court filing, Relief Requested]
– Beacon staff, Brookline, MA, December 14, 2015
Complaint and jury demand, Gerald Alston v. Town of Brookline, et al., case 1:15-cv-13987, U.S. District Court for Massachusetts, filed December 1, 2015 (1 MB, as obtained from court records)
Agenda, Board of Selectmen, Town of Brookline, MA, for December 15, 2015
Cases of interest, U.S. District Court for Massachusetts (PACER registration needed for docket access)
Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER), United States Courts
Brock Parker, Brookline firefighter sues town over alleged racial slur, Boston Globe, August 30, 2013
Human Relations Youth Resources Commission: Coping with changes, Brookline Beacon, April 24, 2014
Board of Selectmen: firefighter Gerald Alston, Jr., speaking, Brookline Beacon, December 6, 2014