Federal Judge Reverses Win by Rockland County in Lawsuit Filed by Probation Officers

By Joel Grossbarth

A federal judge has reversed a jury verdict in favor of Rockland County in a suit brought by 16 Rockland County probation officers.

Judge Kathryn H. Vratil granted the probation officers post-trial request for judgment notwithstanding the jury verdict in favor of Rockland County. The lawsuit alleged that Kathleen Tower-Bernstein, Rockland County’s Director of Probation retaliated against the plaintiffs for exercising their rights under the United States Constitution’s First Amendment.

According to Judge Vratil’s Decision, plaintiffs signed a letter on June 9, 2016 addressed to the Rockland County Legislature regarding the proposed moving of the Department of Probation offices and the effect it would have on staff and others. Shortly thereafter, on June 21, 2016, Tower-Bernstein issued a “Memorandum of Warning” stating the probation officers “demonstrated a disregard for chain of command, disrespect for the Office of the County Executive and ignorance of potential repercussions of [their] actions, including political, economic and public perception.”

Tower-Bernstein then warned plaintiffs that that “further communications of this nature may result in disciplinary action against you.” Plaintiffs were also required to attend an emergency meeting to discuss the letter to the Legislature. Plaintiffs alleged that the Memorandum of Warning and the emergency meeting constituted a retaliatory adverse action that violated their Constitutional rights.

Following the close of evidence at trial, plaintiffs requested the Judge enter a verdict in their favor without submitting the case to the jury. The judge denied the request, and the jury eventually returned a verdict in favor of Rockland County, finding that none of the 16 plaintiffs had proven that Tower-Bernstein had taken an adverse action against them.

On March 23, 2020, plaintiffs submitted a post-trial request, asking the Judge to enter judgment in their favor, notwithstanding the jury verdict. Judge Vratil agreed with plaintiffs that the Memorandum of Warning “chilled” the exercise of plaintiff’s First Amendment rights. The judge found that no “reasonable and fair-minded jury” could have found for the county and entered judgment in favor of the probation officers.

he Judge ordered both sides to show cause why the court should not hold a new trial solely on the issue of damages now that the court has entered judgment in favor of the probation officers.

According to a Statement released by Rockland County Attorney Thomas Humbach, “The County of Rockland believes that there was no violation of the Plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights – the Jury agreed, finding that not one of the sixteen Plaintiffs proved they had been harmed by the County.  Based upon the verdict, it is safe to say that the Jury, like the County, believes that it is not a violation of anyone’s freedom of speech for an employer to meet with employees and ask them to make any complaints about workplace conditions through their supervisor.

“In a rare move, despite the unanimous verdict in the County’s favor, the Judge overruled the verdict given by a jury of Plaintiffs’ peers.  The Judge unilaterally awarded the case to the Plaintiffs, finding that the Jury was unreasonable and unfair.  Because of this decision, the County expects to have a money judgment assessed against it in the upcoming weeks.  Under present plans by the County, this judgment will be appealed at the appropriate time, when all proceedings at the trial level are complete.”