Court Affirms $2.2 Million Judgment Against Police Union

Vanessa Dixon joined the Lowell, Massachusetts Police Department in 1994. As a member of the Department, she automatically became a member of Local 382 of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers (IBPO). An active member of the Union, Dixon ran for the Local’s executive board, hosted holiday parties for members’ families, participated in fundraising events, and traveled with the Local to Union events in Puerto Rico and Washington, DC. In the fall of 1998, Dixon agreed to participate with the Local in a gubernatorial campaign rally in Boston.

On October 26, 1998, Dixon joined seven of her fellow officers and six corrections officers on a hired bus to travel to Boston. She was the only woman on the trip other than the bus driver. Over the course of the trip, some of Dixon’s fellow officers began to verbally harass her. Among the comments directed towards Dixon, who was sitting in the back of the bus with a male officer, were “Why don’t you f__ her. We all have,” “She gives great blow jobs,” and “She will do you, she’s done all of us.” After the male officer got off the bus, the verbal abuse of Dixon continued. Eventually, Dixon, who was terrified by the level of the verbal abuse (others described what was occurring as “totally inappropriate conversation, verbally abusive, threatening, and having the potential to explode”) demanded that the bus stop and she be let off. Throughout the entire exchange, Gerald Flynn, the president of the Local, sat in the front of the bus, and did not intervene to stop the abuse or to try to reassure Dixon when she wanted to flee.

During her efforts to make her way home, Dixon was subjected to an attempted sexual assault by a stranger. Distraught, Dixon called in sick to work the next two days, and when she did return to work, avoided speaking about the bus incident. A few weeks later, however, the Police Chief caught wind of the incident and started an internal investigation.

One of the “targets” of the investigation sought and received an ex parte temporary restraining order against Dixon, stating in an affidavit that Dixon had made threatening comments to him on the bus. The TRO had the result which the officer intended – it required the Department to put Dixon on administrative leave and confiscate her weapon for the 15 days that the TRO was in effect. Dixon had to hire a lawyer to go to court to deny the allegations; the other officer never returned to court to support his TRO or to seek continued protection.

Eventually, the City either suspended or fired most of the officers who had been involved in the harassment of Dixon. Dixon then brought a lawsuit against, among others, the Local and the International Brotherhood of Police Officers.
A jury awarded Dixon compensatory damages of $1,205,000, plus $25,000 in punitive damages against the Local, and $1 million against the IBPO for retaliation. The Local and the IBPO appealed the jury’s award.

In upholding the jury’s verdict, the federal First Circuit Court of Appeals held that where the IBPO would not be responsible for the individual acts of IBPO members, it would be responsible for any of its own actions that could fairly be said to amount to retaliation. The Court pointed to the conduct of the president of the IBPO itself, who hosted a local television show produced and paid for by the IBPO. As the Court described it, the president, Kenneth Lyons, “used the show over the following year to defend the male officers and disparage Dixon, the Police Chief, and the City Manager for pursuing their investigation. His comments grew increasingly vicious.

“Lyons did not limit his comments to defending the IBPO or the conduct of its other members. Instead he turned on Dixon, describing her as unfit for the job: ‘Guess where they have that girl working? And she admits, mind you, to the old four-letter word. Of course, I wouldn’t dare to use it. And she, she is working in a school with children. God forbid.’”

The Court described Lyons as repeatedly insinuating that “Dixon would pay a cost for pressing her discrimination claims,” and closed one segment of his show by warning “that girl who made these fabrications, she’s in trouble, she’s in trouble, she’s in trouble.”

The Court concluded that “a jury could reasonably find that such statements, coming from the president of a national union, constituted threats and intimidation that objectively could deter someone in Dixon’s position from pressing her claims, or that those statements interfered with Dixon’s ability to do so by encouraging her colleagues to stand against her.”

Dixon v. International Brotherhood of Police Officers, 2007 WL 2812118 (1st Cir. 2007).

This article appears in the November 2007 issue