PITTSBURGH — A federal judge has restored the rank of police commander to a woman who claims she was demoted for opposing a mayoral appointee whom she felt had improperly interfered with her attempts to discipline an officer.
On Jan. 10 U.S. District Judge Donetta Ambrose found police Cmdr. Catherine McNeilly likely could succeed in her claims that the city violated her rights under the First Amendment and state Whistleblower law.
McNeilly's lawsuit, filed by the ACLU, claims her free speech was violated when she was demoted to lieutenant and assigned to the warrants office — losing about $10,000 in annual pay — for criticizing Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's nominee to become public-safety director. That lawsuit will continue.
The nominee, Dennis Regan, was already Ravenstahl's chief of operations and would have overseen the police department had City Council approved his appointment to the public-safety post last fall.
McNeilly expressed her concerns about Regan in an e-mail to City Council members, officers in the police bureau's chain of command, her husband, who is the former police chief, and her brother, the police chaplain. Attached to the e-mail was a disciplinary action report about a police officer, who is the brother of Regan's housemate.
McNeilly said she sent the e-mail to council three days after sending the same material to Ravenstahl and not getting a response.
Ravenstahl ordered an investigation when the scandal broke last fall. Regan resigned from office, but has said McNeilly's accusations are baseless and a city Law Department investigation found he did nothing wrong.
Police Chief Nate Harper testified Jan. 10 that he demoted McNeilly not for expressing her opinion of Regan, but because she attached confidential information about the officer.
City attorneys made the same argument, but Judge Ambrose rejected it, saying the e-mail itself summarized what was in the attachment, as well as mentioning other "highly sensitive information" about the officer.
McNeilly "made a good faith attempt to report wrongdoing" and tried "to express her concerns through her chain of command, but the chain of command had been ineffective in addressing her concerns," Ambrose said.
The attachment to the e-mail was to get council's attention, "especially in light of the lack of response from the mayor," Ambrose said.
The judge said the city failed to identify any statutory or constitutional basis for keeping the information confidential.
Although the city has an interest in maintaining the police chain of command and confidentiality of employee records, that interest is outweighed by the revelation of "allegations and evidence of wrongdoing and governmental misconduct and concerns that wrongdoers would be placed in high government positions," Ambrose said.
Assistant City Solicitor Michael Kennedy argued earlier that McNeilly's free-speech rights were not violated.
"She can go out and have a press conference about Dennis Regan or anything else," Kennedy said.
Not reversing McNeilly's demotion would cause her irreparable harm, Ambrose said.
"The law is clear. The loss of First Amendment freedoms even for the smallest amount of time constitutes irreparable harm," Ambrose said.
"The chilling effect of discipline and demotion to a police officer who makes a good faith report of what she believes in good faith to be wrongdoing and inappropriate influence in government never serves the public interest," the judge said.
McNeilly and her attorneys were overjoyed.
"We represented the best possible client for the best possible reasons and we got the best possible result for her and the city of Pittsburgh," attorney Timothy P. O'Brien said. "You cannot silence people. People should not be punished for telling the truth."
"I'm happy and anxious to return to work," McNeilly said. "I'm grateful."
Acting City Solicitor George Specter said the city was disappointed by Ambrose's ruling, but would abide by it.
"This is not the end of the case, but rather it's the beginning," Specter said. "And we have every hope that ultimately the city's position will be vindicated."
McNeilly's attorneys said they planned to depose Ravenstahl as the ACLU lawsuit moves forward.
Ravenstahl will respect the decision of the court and follow the order, said Dick Skrinjar, a spokesman for the mayor.