Two former top state Probation Department officials who resigned more than eight years ago amid a political patronage hiring scandal have filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the former chief of the state Trial Court system, seeking damages of $2.85 million.
Former probation commissioner John J. “Jack” O’Brien and Elizabeth V. Tavares, who was O’Brien’s top deputy, filed suit Friday against retired judge Robert A. Mulligan, who they say targeted them for termination partly out of a personal dislike for O’Brien.
O’Brien and Tavares claim Mulligan “knowingly deprived” them of their due process rights and “has shown a reckless or callous indifference to the federally protected rights” of both plaintiffs, according to the civil complaint filed in the case.
Mulligan could not be reached for comment on Sunday, and it was unclear whether he had hired an attorney in the case.
Martin W. Healy, chief legal counsel and chief operating officer of the Massachusetts Bar Association, said the case was “extraordinary” — the first time in his three decades with the bar association that a former chief justice of administration and management for the Trial Court has been sued.
Paul K. Flavin, the Milton attorney representing O’Brien and Tavares, said in a phone interview Sunday that he takes no position on the ethics or appropriateness of patronage hiring, but that his clients shouldn’t have been punished for acts many others carried out with impunity.
“It’s a travesty that patronage is widespread within state government and the trial court, and these two people are singled out,” Flavin said. “The disruptive effect on their lives is long lasting, and it’s devastating, and it’s going to haunt them for the rest of their lives, professionally and personally.”
Flavin said restoring his clients’ sullied reputations is one of his main goals.
O’Brien and Tavares claim Mulligan had an ulterior motive when he spoke with the Globe for a 2010 Spotlight series that exposed rampant patronage within the Probation Department and led to an independent investigation initiated by Mulligan and the state Supreme Judicial Court.
The judge, who by then had retired, later testified in a public corruption trial that led to the 2014 federal convictions of O’Brien, Tavares, and another of O’Brien’s top deputies, William Burke III.
In late 2016, a federal appeals court in Boston overturned those convictions, saying that while the officials’ actions may be distasteful, they were not a federal crime.
The complaint filed Friday alleges that both Mulligan’s actions in his official role and his cooperation with the Spotlight Team were driven by a personal vendetta against O’Brien and a desire to reclaim Probation Department hiring authority for the office Mulligan then held.
It further claims that “Judge Mulligan, himself engaged in the same patronage hiring as Mr. O’Brien, but only Mr. O’Brien and his deputies were targeted for suspension and termination.”
As a result, O’Brien and Tavares allege, they “have suffered monetary and emotional damages, impairment of reputation, humiliation, and mental anguish.”
O’Brien and Tavares say Mulligan’s behavior “was arbitrary and capricious and a shocking abuse of government power that was not keyed to any legitimate government interest” but intended only to get rid of them.
Healy, the bar association attorney, said that because many documents in the case have not been made public, “there’s still a lot of unanswered questions” about whether Mulligan had the authority to take the steps he took, and about the investigation into patronage at the department.
“It’s too early to really tell whether or not this suit would be successful,” he said, “but I think as the case proceeds, there’s a lot that will be revealed in the process of discovery.”