WILLIAMSTOWN — Attorneys for Williamstown say a sergeant’s lawsuit fails to make a factual case that he was treated unfairly — and for that reason it should be tossed.
In a filing Friday in U.S. District Court in Springfield, attorneys for Williamstown asked a magistrate to dismiss the suit filed in August by Sgt. Scott McGowan. They argue that McGowan, who remains on the job, does not provide enough evidence that he was discriminated against by Chief Kyle Johnson.
A 13-page memorandum in support of the motion to dismiss takes aim at McGowan’s allegation that Johnson retaliated against him for being a frequent critic of police practices in town and of the chief’s management of the department.
The filings only address the question of whether McGowan was subjected to biased treatment as an employee.
They do not refer to any of the sergeant’s allegations of broader racial discrimination in the department and sexual harassment by the chief, the elements of the lawsuit that triggered the most vocal condemnation by residents in late summer and led to a string of Select Board executive sessions and public meetings.
McGowan claims that, in 2007, Johnson sexually assaulted him and another officer by repeatedly rubbing his groin against them. The complaint also cites racially discriminatory actions by Johnson and others, including use of derogatory language and harassment of a Black officer.
The town’s response also does not mention Town Manager Jason Hoch, who is a co-defendant, and does not rebut McGowan’s claim that the town retaliated against him by not promoting him to a new lieutenant’s position.
Instead, the document cites case law and provides emails to support the claim that key actions taken by Johnson with regard to McGowan were needed and sensible.
A key action concerns Johnson’s decision to place McGowan on paid administrative leave in January 2019, after the sergeant, replying to an email about policing statistics, told the chief that he had faced “physical, emotional and medical setbacks” that he linked to what he termed “biased treatment” in the department. In his lawsuit, McGowan says he had taken sick leave to cope with “challenging conditions.”
Later that year, McGowan filed a complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. It was withdrawn before action by the commission, to allow McGowan to make his case in federal court.
Attorneys Patricia M. Rapinchuk and Hunter S. Keil of Robinson Donovan PC in Springfield argue that, given McGowan’s disclosures, the chief had to be sure the sergeant was safe to remain in his position. They say he was justified, as well, to require that McGowan be proved medically fit to return to service.
“It was prompted by reasonable concerns about Plaintiff’s fitness to be in his position,” the lawyers say of the leave. They provide the text of an email that Johnson sent to all staff about the sergeant’s leave. Rather than stigmatize McGowan, as the sergeant claims, the lawyers say that the email noted that the administrative leave was “not punitive.”
The court filings also take aim at McGowan’s assertion that he was treated illegally on the basis of a disability. The town claims that since McGowan quickly was cleared to return to work from leave, and did so Feb. 12, 2019, the issues were “transitory and minor.” The attorneys assert that McGowan was not handicapped and cannot make legal claims on that basis.
The case has been assigned to U.S. Magistrate Katherine A. Robertson. If the motion to dismiss is not granted, the case will continue with further arguments.