FALL RIVER — A Superior Court judge has cleared the way for former Bristol Community College police chief Wayne Wood to sue the institution, on claims that he was fired in retaliation for his testimony in another officer’s sexual discrimination lawsuit that resulted in a $1 million judgement.
In addition to the college, the lawsuit, which was filed in May 2018, names President Laura Douglas, Vice President of Administration and Finance Steven Kenyon and Gina Yarbrough, a staff attorney for the Massachusetts Community College system.
Bristol County Superior Court Judge Jackie Cowan issued a ruling Nov. 15 in response to Bristol’s request for a summary judgement for Wood's charges of retaliation, violating his right to due process and violating his free speech.
The judge’s order essentially ruled against Wood's due process and free speech claims, but denied the defense attorney's attempt for a judgement before trial on the retaliation claim.
Lawsuit filed after termination
Wood worked for the campus police department for 20 years and headed the public safety department for 17 years until he was told in October 2017 he was being terminated the following April on the pretense of poor job performance, despite “outstanding performance evaluations” previously, according to his complaint.
After he was notified of his termination, Wood was banned from campus with pay for six months before his firing took effect.
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Discrimination lawsuit and testimony
In his lawsuit, Wood said college administrators and Bristol lawyers applied “intense pressure” on him to change his testimony in favor of the college during the October 2016 civil trial of former campus police Sgt. Susan Ledoux.
Wood claims that during Ledoux’s trial the college’s Human Resources director and assistant director attacked his character and competence.
Ledoux claimed years of harassment, beginning in 2003, from fellow college police officers. The harassment included damaging rumors that she was having an affair with Wood.
A Superior Court jury sided with Ledoux in October 2016 and awarded her $2.45 million in damages. Bristol appealed and the award was reduced to $1 million in January 2020.
After the trial in early 2017, Wood claims that Kenyon notified him that his job performance needed improving before he was notified of the termination the following October.
The new ruling
In their request for summary judgement, Douglas, Kenyon and Yarbrough argued that Wood couldn’t prove his retaliation claim because they had no knowledge of the content of his testimony in the 2016 discrimination lawsuit.
Cowan said there was direct evidence that Kenyon had knowledge of Wood’s testimony after he acknowledged in a deposition that the former police chief had kept him informed of what was happening at trial.
Regarding Douglas, who was confirmed as Bristol’s new president less than three months after the Ledoux trial, and Yarbrough, Cowan acknowledged there was no direct evidence they knew what Wood had said at trial, but it would be reasonable to assume they did.
“At a bare minimum,” wrote Cowan, Douglas and Yarbrough knew that Wood testified at trial, had been called by Ledoux’s attorney and was a supporter of the former campus police officer.
Further, Cowan concluded that if she were to grant the summary judgement regarding retaliation, the court would have to surmise that Douglas, Kenyon and Yarbrough would be unaware at what occurred at a multi-million sexual discrimination lawsuit against the college. The trial, she wrote, "was the culmination of some 8 years of complaints, strife and controversy involving Ledoux and Wood — on the one hand, and a group of other BCC police officers on the other. Again, a jury could reasonably find this to be implausible,” wrote Cowan.
Wood’s attorney, Adrienne Catherine Beauregard, declined to comment on the judge’s ruling, citing the pending jury trial that will occur in the next several months.
A trial date has not yet been set but a final pre-trial conference is set in Superior Court in New Bedford on Dec. 13.
In a prepared statement, Kevin Spirlet, the associate director of media relations and college communications for Bristol, said: “We are aware of the pending lawsuit that has been filed by a former employee and is making its way through the court system. The college adheres to strict privacy policies and does not discuss personnel matters publicly”.
Jo C. Goode may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Support local journalism and subscribe to The Herald News today!
This article originally appeared on The Herald News: Trial pending in case of fired Bristol Community College police chief