Lawyer wants to get job back for fired New Milford police lieutenant
NEW MILFORD -- Police Lt. James Duda was fired without being informed what he was alleged to have done wrong, his attorney claims, and he is weighing legal options to correct what his lawyer says was a violation of his employment rights.
"We want his job back," Ridgefield lawyer Daniel Hunsberger declared Tuesday. "We're still operating on the position that there was no just cause for his termination."
Lt. Duda, 45, was suspended from duty with pay Feb. 8 after Police Chief Shawn Boyne was alerted to possible breaches of professional conduct related to destruction of computer equipment.
An internal investigation continues into that and other complaints that reportedly have come to light since Lt. Duda's firing. Chief Boyne said he will publicly release the findings when the investigation is complete.
Before his suspension, Lt. Duda submitted a letter of intent to begin retirement just after completing his 25th anniversary date on May 27. Mayor Patricia Murphy refused to accept the letter.
In the letter, Lt. Duda wrote that his decision to retire was made with a "heavy heart" but was one he thought prudent. Mr. Hunsberger said Lt. Duda submitted the letter before seeking legal advice about his options.
More InformationTermination of New Milford Lt. James Duda Feb. 8: Duda is suspended with pay pending an investigation into allegations of damaged computer equipment. Feb. 14: He submits letter of intent to retire as of his 25th anniversary, May 27. Feb. 28: Mayor Patricia Murphy extends offer that would allow him to retire with full benefits on March 1. March 4: Murphy revokes offer and terminates Duda. Now: Internal investigation remains open
"He's a pretty upstanding individual, and he figured if he was getting this much grief and aggravation, he could retire and do something else," Mr. Hunsberger said.
On Feb. 28, Mayor Murphy offered him a deal that would have allowed him to retire with full pension benefits effective the following business day. Lt. Duda did not immediately respond to the offer.
By the end of that week, Mayor Murphy said, she had evidence from Chief Boyne that convinced her Lt. Duda's actions were not a one-time lapse in judgment but involved repeated misconduct.
On March 4, she revoked the offer and fired him.
"He was fired without him ever being informed he was going to be fired," Mr. Hunsberger said, noting Lt. Duda wasn't even given adequate time to seek legal advice on the initial offer. "He's never been given any charges."
To date, Mr. Hunsberger said, all he has been able to access are Lt. Duda's personnel records, which he said show a mostly stellar performance over the course of his career -- nine commendations, all positive evaluations, and less than a handful of reprimands or disciplinary actions. He remains unaware of the allegations that prompted the termination.
Mayor Murphy said Tuesday that Lt. Duda, as an "at-will" employee in this state, did not need to be told more than that he no longer met the department's standards for employment.
"He would know what he did wrong, not me," she said.
Mayor Murphy said she has not seen a draft of Chief Boyne's investigation, because after the initial allegation was reviewed additional complaints have required further examination.
Chief Boyne said the accusations prompted him to ask the State's Attorney's Office in Litchfield if criminal charges are warranted.
Mayor Murphy said she has learned Lt. Duda is entitled to the 6 percent he paid into the pension program, but whether he would be eligible for medical benefits or any other pension compensation is yet to be decided.
She said she does not wish to "reward someone for bad behavior."
Again, Mr. Hunsberger said, he and his client know nothing about the internal investigation that prompted Lt. Duda's termination, nor have they been advised about the latest federal case.
Mr. Hunsberger said he intends to protect his client's rights, so any decision about Lt. Duda returning to his job or retiring is his own decision, not one imposed on him based on what the lawyer said are meritless allegations.
"He did serve for 25 years, and in this country there is a presumption of innocence," Mr. Hunsberger said. "But the town doesn't seem to appreciate that concept. He's been hung in the paper without being advised why he's being hung.
"In my experience, the way this has been handled is extremely unusual," Mr. Hunsberger added.
Contact Nanci G. Hutson at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 860-354-2274.