HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — A former worker at a subsidiary of the Swiss banking giant UBS AG won a legal fight over free speech rights Monday after claiming he was illegally fired in 2008 for repeatedly warning that properties held in the company’s investment funds were overvalued by millions of dollars.
The Connecticut Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the state constitution and state law ban public and private employers from disciplining workers for speech made in their official capacity about “matters of significant public interest.”
Lawyers involved in the case said the ruling makes Connecticut the first state to affirm those free speech rights for workers under state law, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2006 that the federal constitution doesn’t protect public employees’ free speech rights when they speak out in their official roles.
Civil liberties advocates had urged the court to expand workers’ free speech rights. Business advocates argued the opposite, saying it would put Connecticut companies at a disadvantage compared with those in other states and impede their ability to manage their workforces.
“The court’s ruling protects employees who speak out about wrongdoing,” said Dan Barrett, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut. “This decision safeguards both private and public workers who raise their voices against lawbreaking, health and safety problems and other major public concerns.”
Richard Trusz, 59, of Glastonbury is suing UBS and subsidiary UBS Realty Investors LLC, based in Hartford, for back pay and punitive damages in federal court, where a judge asked the state Supreme Court to rule on the speech issue decided Monday. The case in U.S. District Court in New Haven remains pending.
Trusz was a managing director in charge of the valuation unit at UBS Realty Investors. His lawsuit alleges he warned company officials beginning in 2007 that properties in its investment funds were mistakenly overvalued by millions of dollars, as the valuation unit was overworked and requests for more staff were rejected.
Trusz alleges that UBS Realty Investors officials fired him because he raised the concerns, and that officials failed to disclose the overvaluations to investors. He claims UBS and UBS Realty Investors fabricated lies to cover up violations of state and federal laws. He also said the companies did not refund excess management fees that were based on the property values.
Trusz and a lawyer for UBS didn’t return messages seeking comment Monday.
In court documents, the companies deny Trusz’s allegations. They said the compliance officer for UBS Realty Investors and a third-party auditor reviewed Trusz’s claims and confirmed valuation errors, but they determined the mistakes didn’t rise to a level that required the company to restate the values to investors or return excess management fees.
Trusz said the companies’ properties were overvalued by a total of $15 million in the second quarter of 2007 and by millions of dollars in subsequent quarters.
The companies say Trusz wasn’t fired because of his complaints. They say Trusz and others in the valuation unit were let go when UBS Realty Investors decided to outsource some valuation work, court documents say.
Trusz’s lawyers, Wesley Horton and Todd Steigman, praised the state Supreme Court’s ruling, saying it gives broader constitutional rights to all workers in Connecticut.