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Farmington Woman Complains of Racial Discrimination at Avon Police Department

Nichole Brown has filed a CHRO complaint against the Avon Police Department, but department officials say her demotion, suspension and termination were due to misconduct.

Avon Police Chief Mark Rinaldo's former secretary has filed a complaint with the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities (CHRO) against the police department.

Nichole Brown, of Farmington, claims that racial discrimination and retaliation factored into her demotion to a records aide, suspension and eventual termination.

"I was suspended without pay/transferred/demoted on or about March 27, 2012 due to my race/color (black), I was the recipient of bias in Respondent's investigation and appeal process due to race/color and in retaliation for complaining about discrimination on or about April 11, 2012, and I was issued a written warning and terminated on or about June 6, 2012 and believe that my race/color (black), previous opposition were in part factors in this action," Brown's complaint, dated July 17, stated.

Rinaldo received notification from the CHRO of the complaint on Aug. 6. PDFs of the Brown's CHRO complaint and previous appeals, as well as internal police department investigation reports and termination recommendation letters are attached to this article.

While Brown felt that her punishment was more severe than usual for department employees, Avon Police Department leadership said that the actions were taken because of misconduct on her part.

"Any claim that the Town of Avon took an adverse employment action against Ms. Brown for reasons other than her own misconduct is in conflict with overwhelming evidence to the contrary," Avon Police Capt. Jeffrey Blatter wrote in an email to Avon Patch. 

Brown began working as a per diem dispatcher for Avon in 2009 and also was a Canton police dispatcher at the time. In November 2011, she left her Canton dispatching position and accepted a probationary administrative secretary II job in Rinaldo's office.

In March, she was suspended for five days without pay and demoted to a records aide position because department leaders felt that she overstepped her authority. By June, she was terminated.

“I’m trying to be able to clear my name about being dishonest and unethical,"  said Brown, who has worked for municipalities since she was 18 and was temporarily a police officer in Plainville. “To be labeled as that was heartbreaking for me.”

Additionally, on Sept. 13, the state Employment Security Appeals Division in Waterbury dismissed Brown's motion to reopen the case for a Aug. 16 appeal. Her appeal contested the Department of Labor's July ruling that she was ineligible unemployment benefits. Brown had filed an unemployment benefits claim with the Employment Security Division in June after the town of Avon denied her unemployment benefits following her termination.

Brown said the termination took a toll on her mentally and she and her husband financially. They went from two incomes to one and she is also concerned because they need insurance to cover therapy for their child who has Down syndrome.

Brown's Suspension and Demotion

Her suspension and demotion were disciplinary measures taken after she drafted an update to a previous sick bank leave policy in February without authorization from Rinaldo, according to an internal investigation conducted late that month. She sent the policy to Town Manager Brandon Robertson and then to Human Resources, also intending it for two police union presidents.

"I was demoted for an innocent mistake and I admitted my mistake," Brown said, noting that she appealed the claim that her actions were "dishonest and unethical."

She said Rinaldo asked her to pull the file for the sick bank leave policy. A dispatcher needed to go on leave because a family member had medical issues. The existing policy allowed workers to donate unused paid sick days to employees who needed that time off for medical reasons. It didn't originally pertain to immediate family, but she said her edit from "will not" to "will" changed the meaning to allow it.

"Ms. Brown exceeded the scope of her assigned duties and responsibilities, and acted outside the authority of the chief of police," according to the investigation conclusion.

Brown said she told the human resources assistant that she changed the word.

"No one was harmed or slighted in any type of way,” Brown said.

According to Blatter's investigation report, Brown told him she was trying to help her fellow employee and was not trying to misrepresent the policy draft change.

Brown said that when she couldn't find the chief to ask him what to do with the policy, she asked Blatter. She said he responded by asking her what she thought she should do and whether the chief needed to sign off on it.

Brown admitted that she wasn't given direction on what to do, but she said she didn't think she needed the chief's signature to draft an update to the policy so she took the initiative because it was out of date.

Brown's Termination

On March 4, Brown was demoted to the Records Division.

Brown said that two people that knew of her edit to the sick bank leave policy weren't interviewed in the internal investigation. She tried to find a past email with evidence validating her claim, but she was given a new username and was not able to access her original email account.

She contacted the information technology representative that serves the department on April 25 to ask for help accessing her original email account.

Rinaldo asked Blatter to do a second internal affairs investigation when he found out that she did this without his permission. Blatter determined that Brown violated a department general order "for attempting to access a department account she was not authorized to access."

Brown said that she received notification of the investigation two hours after she asked Robertson about the status of a Freedom of Information request related to her demotion and suspension.

In a letter Rinaldo wrote to Robertson recommending Brown's termination, he also said that Brown showed disrespect to Lt. Kelly Walsh when she resumed work after her suspension. She didn't make eye contact with Walsh in a meeting outlining her new responsibilities as a records aide, the letter said. Brown said that was because she was taking notes.

He also said that she created a "hostile workplace environment" by not being cordial to another coworker. In a letter Blatter wrote to Rinaldo recommending her termination, he said that in May, Brown threw mail "on and around" the "in-basket" for Rinaldo's new secretary, Pamela Prado, who was promoted from records aide to fill the position. Brown left the room without saying a word to Prado, the report said.

Brown said that she no longer knew who to trust in the department after her suspension and demotion, so she decided to do her job and avoid personal chit chat.

Why Brown Filed CHRO Complaint

Before going to the CHRO, two appeals Brown filed to overturn the disciplinary measures taken against her were unsuccessful.

"My understanding is that the people who made the decision to demote me were going to hear my appeal," she said.

She wanted to file a grievance against the town with the State Labor Board of Mediation, but said the town refused to do so because her appeals were considered closed.

“They abused their authority and did everything to block my right to due process," Brown told Patch. "That’s why I had to go to the CHRO.”

Brown said last week that the process for the CHRO complaint is still in its early stages.

Timeline of Events

Date Sequence of Events Leading Up to CHRO Complaint  2009 Nichole Brown begins working as a dispatcher when needed at the Avon Police Department, usually twice a week, she told Patch. She also works as a police dispatcher in Canton at this time. Nov. 7, 2011 Brown is hired as a probationary administrative secretary to Avon Police Chief Mark Rinaldo. She leaves the Canton Police Department, according to department records.
Feb. 22, 2012 Brown delivers a department memorandum about updates to the sick bank leave policy to Town Manager Brandon Robertson and then Human Resources, according to department records.
Feb. 27, 2012 Rinaldo informs Brown that the department would be conducting an internal investigation into her actions. Feb. 29, 2012 Brown receives a written warning about the investigation. March 27, 2012 The investigation into Brown is completed. Rinaldo told her she violated section of the town's personnel plan "for failing to meet prescribed work standards and engaging in dishonest and unethical behavior," according to the complaint. March 28 to April 4, 2012 Brown is suspended for five business days without pay. She was also demoted to a records aide position. March 29, 2012 Brown requests an appeal hearing. April 4, 2012 Brown meets with Lt. Kelly Walsh to learn of her new duties. April 11, 2012 Brown's public appeal hearing takes place. April 16, 2012 Brown receives notice from Robertson that he has decided to uphold her suspension and demotion, as well as the internal investigation. April 20, 2012 Brown requests the town submit her appeal to the state labor board for review. April 25, 2012 Avon Police Department officials learn that Brown was trying to access the email account she used as secretary. A second internal investigation begins. April 26, 2012 Robertson denies Brown's labor board mediation request. May 4, 2012 Brown submits grievance to Rinaldo, stating that she believed "the decisions, discipline and appeal process were biased, unfair and partial" and that the discipline against her was based on her "race/color" and "retaliatory due to my verbal protected activity." May 8, 2012 Rinaldo denies Brown's grievance request, according to the CHRO complaint. May 24, 2012 Capt. Jeffrey Blatter meets with Brown, addressing concerns that she was creating a "hostile work environment" after complaint from Prado.
May 25, 2012 Blatter recommends Brown's termination to Rinaldo. June 6, 2012 Brown receives a written warning and termination letter "due to incidents that collectively demonstrated a pattern of employment in which I was counseled and/or disciplined without improvement," according to the CHRO complaint. June 8, 2012 Brown requests appeal hearing with Robertson, according to the CHRO complaint. June 15, 2012 Brown's second appeals hearing takes place, according to the CHRO complaint. July 5, 2012 Robertson decides to uphold second internal investigation and termination, according to the CHRO complaint. July 17, 2012 Brown files a CHRO complaint against the Avon Police Department.

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