Chuck Douglas and Jason Major of Douglas, Leonard & Garvey just finished a two-week long jury trial in Merrimack County with a $150,000.00 victory against the New Hampshire Department of Corrections in a free-speech case brought by correctional officer Mark Jordan.
Mr. Jordan was suspended without pay or benefits for a year following a parking lot altercation started by another Corrections Department employee on March 10, 2010. Corrections Commissioner William Wrenn also referred the case to the State Police for criminal charges against Mr. Jordan. Evidence that demonstrated that the other employee was the aggressor was available to but ignored by Commissioner Wrenn. The aggressive employee, who had a history of angrily confronting his co-workers, was not placed on suspension or charged with any crime.
Why was Mr. Jordan singled out and placed on a year-long suspension without pay if he was not the aggressor in the parking lot incident? Mr. Jordan happens to be the president of the New England Police Benevolent Association chapter that represents New Hampshire correctional officers. He had been a vocal advocate for the safety of his fellow officers in late 2009 and early 2010, going on the record to challenge what his union saw as dangerous choices to layoff 56 correctional workers (leading to unsafe levels of understaffing), and Commissioner Wrenn’s support for SB500, a bill which proposed the early release of violent offenders and provided weaker sentences for parole violators. Mr. Jordan also began an investigation of allegations of corruption at the Men’s Prison in Concord related to excessive force charges against a fellow correctional officer, which he also made public.
Following the voicing of his opinions in early 2010, Mr. Jordan’s previously strong personal relationship with Commissioner Wrenn broke down, and when the parking lot altercation occurred on March 10, 2010, Wrenn seized the opportunity to attempt to silence and discredit Mr. Jordan by placing him on suspension and under a criminal investigation (which led to a simple assault charge) for a full year. Mr. Jordan was acquitted of the criminal charges against him on February 28, 2011, and finally returned to his job in June of 2011. The State did provide him with back-pay for the year of work he missed, and retroactively reinstated his health insurance.
However, the State refused to acknowledge the damage done to Mr. Jordan while he was out of work without pay. Mr. Jordan fell behind on his bills and his family had to make sparing use of medical care despite a serious health condition that Mr. Jordan suffers from (which came to light after he was assaulted by an inmate in 2009). Mr. Jordan’s wife Pam described the year without pay and benefits, with bogus criminal charges hanging over Mr. Jordan’s head, as being a “year of hell,” with fear and desperation predominating over their family during that time.
The case was tried before Superior Court Judge Richard McNamara from October 18 through October 28, 2010, resulting a verdict for Mr. Jordan in the amount of $150,000.00. The case was tried under RSA 98-E, a statute which guarantees the free speech and criticism rights of State employees like Mr. Jordan. It is believed to be the first jury verdict under RSA 98-E. The statute provides for an award of attorneys’ fees to the prevailing party as well as damages. The case received press coverage in both the Union Leader and Concord Monitor.