Florio alleged he was fired for giving Baker and Marylou Sudders, Secretary of Health and Human Services, ‘political cover’ after a controversy erupted during Florio’s time decades earlier. early with Kappa Gamma Fraternity at Gallaudet University, a private university in Washington, DC, for the deaf and hard of hearing.
Gallaudet University in the summer of 2020 suspended the fraternity after members were identified wearing blue robes with pointed hoods. At the time, the school president denounced the fraternity as the “face of systemic racism in our community.”
A photo from the 1980s or early 1990s – which overlaps with Florio’s time as a student there – has also spread online, showing former members performing a gesture that looked like a Nazi salute. State officials then launched two investigations after the commission’s deputy legal counsel reported the photo and an ultimately untrue claim by a “blogger” that Florio was depicted in it, according to court documents.
The situation came to the public eye in July after union officials sent a letter to Baker alleging that Florio “admitted to dressing as a Nazi and saluting while wearing clothes resembling Ku Klux Klan uniforms.” in meetings with staff. Florio denied ever making these statements. Days later, state officials placed Florio on administrative leave.
Yet when state officials fired Florio months later, they did not cite his time with the fraternity, but rather internal complaints they said showed a pattern of discriminatory behavior and harassment. State officials also later denied Florio’s request for a “name expungement hearing,” and he has struggled to find work since, according to his lawyers.
In his March 7 ruling, Talwani dismissed Florio’s claims that Baker administration officials violated his rights, writing that Baker and state officials were protected by qualified immunity over certain claims and that they had wide discretion in firing him, given that his position was exempt from state law requiring officials to have just cause before firing someone.
Talwani wrote that Florio also failed to prove that state officials intentionally spread “false and defamatory information” in connection with his dismissal. Florio had accused statements he read to employees that summer of disavowing ties to the fraternity and saying he “ignored his own privilege” had been authored or heavily edited by Sudders and others.
But while Florio failed to prove he was entitled to due process, the series of events nonetheless put Florio in a difficult spot, Talwani wrote.
“The defendants announced an investigation into whether Florio was associated with allegations of racism and anti-Semitism. Following this investigation, the defendants terminated Florio without clearing his name,” she wrote. The explanation Florio received for his dismissal – which was unrelated to this investigation and which Florio says was pretext and false – effectively prevents him from debunking any misconceptions about his dismissal.”
A spokeswoman for the Baker administration said Tuesday that state officials do not comment on litigation or personnel issues.
Florio intends to file a separate lawsuit in state superior court in the coming weeks, according to his attorneys, Carlin Phillips and Philip Beauregard. This complaint, they said, is also likely to allege that Florio, who is profoundly deaf, has been discriminated against because of his disability.
“It speaks to internal systemic discrimination within the commission itself, which is supposed to perform the opposite function,” Beauregard said.
Florio accused last year of being discriminated against in a complaint he filed with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, arguing that the Baker administration’s investigation of him “showed significant bias (perhaps unconscious) against me as a profoundly deaf, non-speaking person”.
“The practice of ‘audism’ was at full play here,” reads the MCAD complaint.
Florio’s attorneys said Tuesday that MCAD sent them a letter saying it declined to take up the lawsuit, citing a conflict of interest. “We don’t have a definitive answer” on what it was, Phillips said.
A commission official said on Tuesday that the agency still considers it an active complaint, saying it “cannot discuss, confirm or deny matters under active investigation. “.
Before he was fired, Florio had headed the commission since February 2019. He alleged in his lawsuit that his superiors ordered him to read verbatim statements “produced by the defendants” to his staff disavowing his association with the fraternity in the summer 2020.
Florio said he felt the statements “were cold” and portrayed him in a false light. In the lawsuit, he described his 29-year ties to the fraternity, which he belonged to for a year between 1991 and 1992, as an “innocent past association”, and he sought to explain the fraternity’s use of the Nazi-like gesture.
It was called the “Bellamy Salute,” which the fraternity adopted in the early 20th century when it came to the national flag salute, according to the lawsuit. However, Congress replaced it in 1942 with the hand-over-heart salute now used when reciting the Pledge of Allegiance because the original gesture closely resembled that used in Nazi Germany.
Florio argued in his complaint that the salute had “long preceded” the similar Nazi gesture. “Gallaudet University is fully aware of Kappa Gamma’s use of the Bellamy Salute and ceremonial robes,” Florio wrote. “The strong public criticism of Kappa Gamma did not occur until mid-2020.”
At the time, the killing of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer sparked protests across the country, sparking a national toll on racism, social injustice and white supremacy.