Meriden detective’s age discrimination suit dismissed 



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MERIDEN — A New Haven Superior Court judge this week dismissed a city police detective’s age discrimination complaint against the city. 

Police Detective John Femia filed the lawsuit in 2020. It listed the city of Meriden as the defendant and alleged he had been passed over for promotion, with police leadership instead opting to promote younger officers. The matter was scheduled for a jury trial in late September, before New Haven Superior Court Judge James W. Abrams issued his ruling on the city’s request for a summary judgment. Abrams granted the city’s request. 

Abrams, in a 15-page memorandum explaining his decision, wrote, “The court concludes, based on the record before it, that the plaintiff failed to raise a genuine issue of material fact on the issue of whether his adverse employment action occurred under circumstances giving rise to a claim of age discrimination. Having failed to make such a showing, the plaintiff has not set forth a prima facie case to support his age discrimination cause of action.”

In his complaint, Femia said he took an exam in 2018 for promotion to detective sergeant. According to the complaint, the detective claimed he finished first on the exam that year, but was not promoted. The complaint stated Femia “was bypassed for promotion” by another detective, John Wagner, who was younger than 40 years old at the time of his promotion. The plaintiff was 42 years old at the time. Wagner was 39.

Femia’s lawsuit listed another five detectives who were similarly promoted to detective sergeant, stating that all were under 40 at the time of their promotions. The complaint further alleged that Femia’s evaluations had been “artificially lowered” to justify police leadership’s decision “to pass the plaintiff over for promotion,” which it stated was a violation of Connecticut’s Fair Employment Practices Act.

City attorneys, in subsequent legal filings, challenged the contention that any age based discrimination had occurred, noting that two of the individuals named in Femia’s complaint who had been promoted before turning 40 were over that age as of the time of the city’s response, and that they had finished first on their promotional exams.

Attorneys also denied Femia’s contention that his evaluations had been artificially lowered as a justification for not being promoted.

Abrams, in his discussion of each side’s arguments, noted the city’s contention that on the face of it, “there was no significant age difference between the plaintiff and the individual who was promoted instead of him.”

The judge cited testimony from former Police Chief Jeffry Cossette as further evidence that the age complaint fails, because Cossette “was not aware of the ages of the respective candidates when he chose to promote Wagner instead of the plaintiff.”

Abrams continued, “... the defendant argues that it had legitimate nondiscriminatory reasons for not promoting the plaintiff. Specifically, the defendant contends that despite his high test scores, the plaintiff had documented difficulties with leadership, teamwork, and respect of subordinates.”

Abrams noted Femia’s contention that there was “sufficient evidence in the record that could support an inference of age discrimination.” Five of the officers promoted to detective sergeant were under 40 years old. Further, Abrams cited Femia’s contention that he had been “the only individual who placed first on the examination who was not promoted.” The detective’s argument also cited comments alleged to have been ageist, made by a police supervisor, and the argument that Cossette, as the chief at the time, “was aware of the various candidates’ respective ages because he had access to their personnel files. Finally, the plaintiff asserts that the reasons given by the defendant for failing to promote him were pretextual in nature.”

Abrams cited previous age discrimination rulings in federal court, which had established in most cases that age gaps less than 10 years are “not significant enough.”

“Therefore, standing alone, the three-year age gap between the plaintiff and Wagner is insufficient to establish the plaintiff’s prima facie case,” Abrams wrote, noting however there may still be a triable claim if the plaintiff had presented evidence showing that his employer “considered [his] age to be significant.”

“Finally, the defendant argues that it had legitimate nondiscriminatory reasons for not promoting the plaintiff. Specifically, the defendant contends that despite his high test scores, the plaintiff had documented difficulties with leadership, teamwork, and respect of subordinates,” Abrams wrote.

He summarized Femia’s counter arguments that there was “sufficient evidence in the record that could support an inference of age discrimination.”

That evidence included the fact that five officers who were promoted to detective sergeant since 2008 were under 40 years old. “Moreover, the plaintiff contends that he was the only individual who placed first on the examination who was not promoted,” Abrams wrote. “Additionally, the plaintiff points to allegedly ageist comments made by a police supervisor. The plaintiff further argues that a reasonable jury could conclude that Chief Cossette was aware of the various candidates’ respective ages because he had access to their personnel files. Finally, the plaintiff asserts that the reasons given by the defendant for failing to promote him were pretextual in nature.”

Abrams concluded “that the plaintiff failed to raise a genuine issue of material fact on the issue of whether his adverse employment action occurred under circumstances giving rise to a claim of age discrimination. Having failed to make such a showing, the plaintiff has not set forth a prima facie case to support his age discrimination cause of action. Accordingly, the court grants the defendant’s motion for summary judgment,” the judge wrote.

City Attorney Emily Holland, in a brief email to the Record-Journal sharing Abram’s decision, wrote, “The Court found for the City for all claims against it.” Holland noted that a previously forthcoming trial had been canceled.

Femia’s attorney, Eric Brown of Watertown, in an email to the Record-Journal, wrote his client is considering an appeal of Abram’s decision.

“While we disagree with the judge’s decision and believe that there was no justification to bypass Detective Femia as the top scorer on multiple tests, we respect the process,” Brown wrote.

mgagne@record-journal.com203-317-2231Twitter:@MikeGagneRJ



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