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Former Mass. advocate for the deaf sued Baker, charging he was fired to give governor ‘political cover.’ A federal judge tossed the case.

Steven A. Florio

A federal judge this month dismissed a lawsuit the state’s former chief advocate for the deaf filed against Governor Charlie Baker, ruling that Massachusetts law gave Baker’s administration “broad discretion” in terminating him after it investigated his ties to a fraternity where members wore robes resembling Ku Klux Klan garb.

But in throwing out Steven A. Florio’s lawsuit, US District Court Judge Indira Talwani acknowledged the series of events had also left the former head of the Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing in a “difficult position.” He was afforded no formal hearing to clear his name even after state officials cited other reasons for firing him in October 2020, effectively precluding him from “debunking any misconceptions” about his termination, she wrote.

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Florio alleged that he was fired to give Baker and Marylou Sudders, the state’s health and human services secretary, “political cover” after controversy erupted around Florio’s time decades earlier with Kappa Gamma Fraternity at Gallaudet University, a private university in Washington, D.C., 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’s president denounced the frat as the “face of systemic racism in our community.”

A photo from the 1980s or early 1990s — which overlap with Florio’s time as a student there — also spread online, showing former members performing a gesture that resembled a Nazi salute. State officials later launched two investigations after the commission’s deputy legal counsel flagged the photo and a “blogger’s” ultimately false allegation that Florio was pictured in it, according to court documents.

The situation burst into public view that July after union officials sent a letter to Baker, alleging that Florio “admitted to dressing as a Nazi and saluting while wearing garb resembling the uniforms of the Ku Klux Klan” in meetings with staff. Florio denied ever making those statements. Days later, state officials placed Florio on administrative leave.

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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 clearing hearing,” and he has struggled to find work since, according to his lawyers.

In her March 7 decision, Talwani dismissed Florio’s claims Baker administration officials violated his rights, writing that Baker and state officials were protected by qualified immunity on some claims and that they had wide discretion to fire him, given his position was exempt from state law requiring that officials have just cause before terminating someone.

Talwani wrote that Florio also failed to prove state officials intentionally disseminated “false and defamatory information” in connection with his termination. Florio had charged that statements he read to employees that summer disavowing ties to the fraternity and saying he was “unaware of his own privilege” had been drafted or heavily edited by Sudders and others.

But while Florio failed to prove he was entitled to procedural due process, the series of events nonetheless put Florio in a tough spot, Talwani wrote.

“Defendants announced an investigation into whether Florio was associated with alleged racism and antisemitism. Following that investigation, Defendants terminated Florio without clearing his name,” she wrote. “The explanation Florio was given for his termination — which was unrelated to that investigation and which Florio contends was pretextual and false — effectively precludes him from debunking any misconceptions about his termination.”

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A Baker administration spokeswoman said Tuesday that state officials do not comment on litigation or personnel matters.

Florio intends to file a separate lawsuit in state superior court within the coming weeks, according to his attorneys, Carlin Phillips and Philip Beauregard. That complaint, they said, is also likely to allege that Florio, who is profoundly deaf, was discriminated against based upon his disability.

“It speaks to an internally systemic discrimination within the commission itself, which is supposed to be performing the opposite function,” Beauregard said.

Florio charged last year that he was discriminated against in a complaint he filed with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, arguing the Baker administration’s investigation of him “displayed a significant (possibly unconscious) bias against me as a profoundly deaf and non-speaking person.”

“The practice of ‘audism’ was in full play here,” the MCAD complaint reads.

Florio’s attorneys said Tuesday that MCAD sent them a letter indicating it had declined to take up the complaint, citing a conflict of interest. “We don’t have a definite answer” on what it was, Phillips said.

A commission official indicated Tuesday the agency still considered it an active complaint, saying it “cannot discuss, confirm or deny matters under active investigation.”

Before he was fired, Florio had led the commission since February 2019. He alleged in his lawsuit his superiors had ordered him to read verbatim statements “produced by the defendants” to his staff disavowing his association with the frat in the summer of 2020.

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Florio said he felt the statements “were cold” and portrayed him in a false light. In the lawsuit, he described his 29-year-old ties to the fraternity, which he belonged to for one year between 1991 and 1992, as an “innocent past association,” and he sought to explain the frat’s use of the Nazi-like gesture.

It was called “Bellamy Salute,” which the fraternity had adopted in the early 20th century when it was the national salute to the flag, according to the lawsuit. Congress, however, replaced it in 1942 with the hand-over-heart salute now used when reciting the Pledge of Allegiance because the original gesture closely resembled the one used in Nazi Germany.

Florio argued in his complaint the salute had “long predated” the similar Nazi gesture. “Gallaudet University has been 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 come about until mid-2020.”

At the time, George Floyd’s murder at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer had sparked demonstrations across the country, touching off a national reckoning on racism, social injustice, and white supremacy.


Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.