PROVIDENCE — A former Westerly zoning enforcement officer is appealing a lower court judge's decision in her defamation lawsuit to the state Supreme Court.
An appeal on behalf of Elizabeth Burdick, who served as zoning enforcement officer from 2008 to 2013, was filed in May and a statement outlining the grounds for the appeal was filed earlier this month. The appeal asks the state Supreme Court to vacate or overturn Superior Court Judge Sarah Taft-Carter's decision in January to grant summary judgment in the town's favor in Burdick's original case. Taft-Carter's decision, if upheld, means the original lawsuit cannot go forward.
Burdick claimed, in her original lawsuit that was filed in 2016, that she was defamed, suffered invasion of privacy when details of her employment history were disclosed, and that her rights under the state Whistleblower Protection Act were violated when town officials retaliated against her.
Burdick served as zoning enforcement officer in the beginning of the Copar Quarries of Westerly ordeal that stretched from 2010, when the company signed an agreement to lease land in Bradford, to 2015, when the company declared bankruptcy. Her private e-mails that were obtained by sources and distributed publicly shed light on the company and how it was handled by town officials.
In her appeal, Burdick argues that Taft-Carter erred in concluding the state Whistleblower Protection Act does not protect former employees. Burdick claims she was defamed and retaliated against when former Town Council President Christopher Duhamel publicly called for a state police investigation of Burdick to see if she had committed a crime while employed by the town. Duhamel made the comments about two years after Burdick had entered into a voluntary separation agreement with the town after town officials were confronted about the contents of her personal e-mails.
While she was employed by the town, Burdick "reported to town officials various issues pertaining to unethical and illegal actions on behalf of town employees and reported instances of a hostile work environment," a statement in Burdick's appeal reads.
"The state Whistleblower Protection Act is intended to protect whistleblowers from employer retaliation. Construing that statute in a manner which would allow disgruntled employers to threaten or otherwise discriminate against an employee regarding the former employee's privileges of employment including the right to seek future employment is inconsistent with the purpose of the statute. It is against this backdrop by which the town's conduct subsequent to [Burdick's] separation from her employment must be judged," the appeal reads.
Gregory Massad, Burdick's lawyer, also argues in the appeal that Taft-Carter erred when she found that Burdick was a public figure, a determination that subjected her defamation claims to a higher legal standard than if she had not been determined to have been a public figure. "Specifically, almost two years after [Burdick] left her employment with the town, she was working about an hour and a half away from the town in Connecticut. At this time, Mr. Duhamel called for a state police investigation into the allegation that [Burdick] extorted the town, an allegation he knew was false," Massad wrote in the appeal.
The state police investigation that Duhamel requested was conducted and it exonerated Burdick of any wrongdoing.
Burdick also claims, in her appeal, that Taft-Carter erred when she ruled the town did not have a legal duty to support Burdick's negligence claim that arose from an allegation the town "disclosed a defamatory memorandum" which was supposed to be removed from her personnel file in accordance with terms of her separation agreement.
Matthew Oliverio, the lawyer who is representing the town in the case, declined to comment for this article, saying the town's position would be clear in a court filing that is due by Aug. 23.