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Darryl Moss, Ex-Sarno Aide, Takes Mayor & Springfield to Court for Discrimination…

Darryl Moss

Prayers for Relief? Moss at a rally for his behalf in September 2020. (WMP&I)

The death of George Floyd reverberated into Springfield as it had the rest of the country. Its impact would vary in a city already facing legal crises over reform and a federal investigation into the Police Department. When the issue crossed Springfield’s employee social media policy, people would lose jobs.

Among them was Darryl Moss, once Mayor Domenic Sarno’s constituent services director. The mayor canned Moss after he posted a reaction to Donald Trump. The full quote, which is a reference to the TV show Lovecraft Country, mentions rifles. Supporters in activist, political and religious communities rallied for Moss in the following days. This past July, Moss filed suit against the city and the mayor in both his personally and official capacities.

In a seven-count complaint, Moss alleges Sarno and the city engaged in employment discrimination three ways. The first three counts allege direct discrimination on the basis of race, disparate impact on the basis of race and retaliation against lawfully protected activity. Moss then alleges defamation, breach of contract, violation of freedom of speech and negligence.

Moss is represented by Robert Johnson, an attorney based in Boston’s Roslindale area. Discrimination cases first go to the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination before becoming eligible for suit in court. Johnson told WMP&I in an email Moss decided to bring the case to Superior Court to pursue his free speech claims, too.

“Mr. Moss spoke out against white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia and unfairness towards members of the Springfield Black community and was terminated as a result,” Johnson emailed. “In the Superior Court, before a jury of his peers, we believe Mr. Moss will have his rights fully vindicated.”

The complaint seeks injunctions against discrimination, declaratory judgment of discrimination, and unspecific compensatory and punitive damages.

The city has moved to dismiss the free speech, defamation, negligence and contract claims. The mayor’s office did not respond to a request for comment. Robinson Donovan, a Springfield law firm, is representing the city.

Not long before Moss’s termination, Springfield police office Florissa Fuentes was terminated for sharing a family member’s Instagram photo that includes her niece holding a sign that says, “Shoot the Fuck Back.”

Springfield Floyd Protest 2020

Even before George Floyd, many of Springfield’s dividing lines cut across Pearl Street in one way or another. (WMP&I)

Fuentes later sued the city for wrongful termination. That case is ongoing. Lawyers from the city Law Department are lead counsel in that case.

The stated basis for Fuentes’ termination was the city’s fraught social media policy. It arose after a Springfield cop posted favorably about the driver who plowed into a crowd in Charlottesville back in 2017. One woman was killed. The Springfield officer apologized but later lost his job. The social media policy Sarno implemented via executive order amounts to a zero-tolerance for offensive or threatening posts. Others have run afoul the policy since its enactment.

Prior to becoming Sarno’s constituent services director, Moss had been deputy communications director. He moved over to constituent services after the unceremonious exit of then-mayor comms director Marian Sullivan. Her successor was William Baker the former constituent services director.

Moss had a mixed reputation in City Hall. However, he was among the more modern-thinking staffers of a mayor who was as likely to mail a tweet as send one from a smartphone. Moss and Sullivan’s predecessor James Leydon convinced Sarno to expand City Hall’s social media presence. That would prove useful when the coronavirus barreled into Springfield. Sarno’s social media livestreams began beaming into residents’ phones and computers.

Yet, Moss was also a key link between the mayor and the Black community. While the late Ray Jordan was an important ally to Sarno in Mason Square and beyond, Moss had ties to other channels to which Springfield’s African-American population tuned.

That made his termination all the more surprising. After Trump commented on one of the events that arose in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing, Moss posted a reaction along with a screenshot of a Huffington Post article. “This is equal to a declaration of war… but this is America! Sundown Sunrise Ass Country… Yo Keshawn Dodds grab the rifles!” Moss posted on August 31.

On October 1, Sarno terminated Moss, citing the policy. According to Moss’s complaint, he filed his MCAD complaint for discrimination against the city in November 2020.

In his complaint in court, Moss alleges a longer chain of events. Specifically, he connects his termination to Pearl Street’s recission of a Black businessman’s license to carry and seizure of his guns in June 2020.

Moss states he intervened for Keshawn Harris, consistent with his constituent services job. Police had acted against Harris because, they claimed, his social media posts could stir violence. The Republican reported in July that year that Moss went with Harris to Police headquarters on Pearl Street to reverse the decision. In the end, supposedly at Sarno’s behest, Police returned Harris’ firearms.

Moss’s complaint states police began investigating his own social media in late July shortly after Harris’ situation went public. However, the allegations also imply a precipitating event was Moss’s objection to the reinstatement of officers accused of beating Black men.

This could be a reference to an event that occurred weeks before in April. Police Commissioner Cheryl Clapprood had briefly reinstated officers connected to the incident that occurred near Nathan Bill’s Bar & Grill. They were re-suspended amid public outcry.

Moss asserts he learned of the investigation from Sarno in “September 2020.” Yet, the complaint states, on September 5 of that year, Clapprood “was notified that Plaintiff [Moss] made a social media post that may have violated Springfield’s social media policy.” The allegations were ostensibly presented to Moss on September 28 who said he was worried for his son following Trump’s comments.

Two days later, Moss spoke at a rally for his job. The next day, Sarno axed him. Since then, Moss has spoken out about what happened.

Moss states his Facebook post characterized Trump’s defense of a white teen who shot and killed two people in Kenosha as an act of war. He further claims he posted it off-duty and it did not violate city policy. He further claims a white firefighter and a white police officer did not lose their jobs. Nor did the city employ any progressive discipline in Moss’s case. However, the complaint alleges, police continued to harass Moss even shutting down a permitted event in August 2021 at Riverfront Park.

Trump Springfield

Can’t get rid of this guy. Still hovering over even Springfield. (created via wikipedia images and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette cartoon).

In his discrimination and disparate impact claims, Moss says he was performing his job well and nevertheless lost his job. White employees, however, did not face the same consequences, he claims. As for the retaliation count, Moss states that he advocated for city employees of color and this protected activity contributed to his termination.

The city has not moved to dismiss these three discrimination claims. Although Moss’s attorney said that the move to Superior Court was to add additional claims, these counts could be damaging on their own. While it is not uncommon for a city of Springfield’s size to face discrimination complaints, rarely would they ever get so close to the mayor’s office. Document requests could be comprehensive, but depositions would focus on other employees’ direct reports. But Moss’s direct report is Sarno.

The claims the city seeks to dismiss traipse outside direct employment discrimination. The negligence count accuses the city of not reasonably investigating Moss’s social media posting. The breach of contract claim alleges the city did not follow its policy manual for non-union employees.

The former mayoral aide claims Sarno defamed him by characterizing Moss as fomenting violence. The freedom of speech count asserts the city and the mayor discriminated against Moss for speaking on matters of public concern.

Notably, this count also seeks an injunction against Sarno and the city “prohibiting the violation of Plaintiff’s Constitutional rights to free speech, expression and association.” That implies Moss will argue he still faces violations of his right to free speech.

The parties have both filed memoranda on the dismissal of these latter four claims. The city argues these counts do not allege enough plausible facts to remain in court.

The city’s defamation argument is the most comprehensive, questioning whether Moss sufficiently alleges false statements and that his claim is barred because Moss was a public figure. In his reply, Moss counters that they were specific and were not opinion.

Lawyers for the city and Sarno and Moss’s attorney will argue the motion to dismiss these claims on November 9. However, the court rules, the discrimination counts will continue until they proceed to trial, Moss withdraws or the parties settle.