A Superior Court judge this week dismissed a complaint by Av Harris, the former Public Health Department spokesman who sought whistleblower protections after the agency fired him for taking legal concerns to the governor’s office.
Harris, a former reporter and longtime communications manager, was terminated in January. He sued the state and the Public Health Department seeking lost wages, benefits, and reinstatement of his job. But his case tests the flexibility of a Connecticut law shielding whistleblowers from retaliation.
Harris argued the law protected him when he brought concerns about an action contemplated by public health officials to lawyers in the governor’s office. Meanwhile, the state contends the whistleblower statute does not apply because the Public Health Department never acted on the plans Harris had questioned.
In a Tuesday ruling, Judge Stuart Rosen sided with the state and decided that unless the agency followed through with a violation of policy, the whistleblower statute did not apply to Harris and the state maintained sovereign immunity.
“Viewing the amended complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, the court finds that the plaintiff alleges only that the defendant contemplated or planned potential violations of state law, but does not allege any actual or ongoing violations or suspected violations,” Rosen wrote. “The plaintiff has thus failed to carry his burden of clearly alleging facts that prove the court’s subject matter jurisdiction.”
The case stems from an incident last December, during which the Public Health Department had planned to fine a Bridgeport sports bar called Mangoz $10,000 for violating executive orders requiring businesses to observe COVID-19 precautions like mask mandates and capacity limitations.
Issuing the fine would require statements from Bridgeport police officers who had been on the property investigating a recent double homicide. According to his court filings, Harris, who had previously worked for Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim, was concerned about interfering with the police murder investigation and questioned whether DPH had the authority to issue the fine.
According to this lawsuit, Harris was unable to get satisfactory answers to his legal questions from within the Public Health Department and believed he needed to act quickly because the former acting commissioner, Dr. Deidre Gifford, intended to issue a fine within 48 hours. He tried contacting Gov. Ned Lamont’s chief of staff, Paul Mounds, but Mounds never returned his calls, according to the complaint.
Eventually, Harris brought his concerns to the attention of the governor’s lawyers. The department eventually fined the owner of the building where the bar is located and the state released a statement in conjunction with Bridgeport officials including the police.
According to the lawsuit, everything worked out better than it would have had Harris not raised his voice. However, during a subsequent videoconference, Harris was “admonished” by Gifford and her chief of staff. His concerns should have been directed to his immediate supervisor rather than the governor’s office, they said.
“This makes it hard for us to trust you with sensitive information because we don’t know who you are calling,” Gifford said, according to Harris.
Two days later, the agency informed Harris he was being terminated just shy of a 10-year employment anniversary that would have netted him retiree health care benefits. In his lawsuit, Harris cited the whistleblower law, which prohibits an employer from dismissing or penalizing an employee who reports a violation or suspected violation of law.
In his ruling this week, Rosen said Harris didn’t meet the bar set by the law.
“[T]he plaintiff does not allege that the defendant violated any state or federal law or regulation,” Rosen wrote. “At most, the plaintiff alleges that the defendant considered issuing a fine that the defendant believed would violate Executive Order 9N, but ultimately issued the fine lawfully.”