The 1st circuit court of Appeals has affirmed the dismissal of a retaliation and whistle-blower suit by a retired Lieutenant of the Stoughton Police Dept. against the town of Stoughton in Chamberlain v. Town of stoughton No. 08-1289, decided on April 1, 2010.
In reviewing the facts of the case the court stated “This case began with a lawsuit by two Stoughton, Massachusetts, police officers alleging that town officials and two officers who served as chiefs of police of the town retaliated against the plaintiff officers for cooperating with an investigation into police misconduct and for disclosing a hostile work environment at the police department. Following grants of summary judgment and directed verdicts by the district court, and a jury verdict on several remaining claims against one of the defendants, the defendants prevailed on each and every claim. The plaintiff officers now appeal.”
In June 2004, the then board members, by a divided vote, failed to reappoint the then chief of police, Manuel Cachopa. David Chamberlin, until then serving as one of several police lieutenants, had earlier submitted his retirement papers effective in July 2004, but he agreed at the Board’s request to serve as interim chief and withdrew his retirement application. He held the interim chief position until the Board hired a replacement chief, Joseph Saccardo, in October 2004 and then reverted to his lieutenant position.
In July 2004, Chamberlin learned of allegations that several police officers, including Cachopa, had engaged in criminal misconduct. Chamberlin informed the Norfolk County District Attorney, who appointed a special prosecutor in August. During this period Chamberlin met several times with the district attorney and the special prosecutor, joined on one occasion by a lieutenant, Francis Wohlgemuth. In October, at the special prosecutor’s request, a number of officers were placed on leave, including Cachopa. A grand jury began to inquire into the matter and both Chamberlin and Wohlgemuth testified before the grand jury in late 2004.
After Cachopa was denied reappointment, a recall campaign was begun to remove the board members who had opposed him. In the town election held in November 2004, those members were replaced by two new selectmen, Richard Levine and John Kowalczyk. In mid-November, the new board ordered the suspended officers reinstated and then reappointed Cachopa as chief on November 24. On his return Cachopa immediately made Christopher Ciampa, a sergeant and strong supporter of Cachopa, his effective deputy, promoting him over the heads of the serving lieutenants. In March 2005, Cachopa and two other officers were indicted, and the Board then made Ciampa acting police chief.
In September 2006, Chamberlin and Wohlgemuth filed suit in federal district court against the Town, the Board, Cachopa, Ciampa, and three selectmen (who also had supported Cachopa): Levine, Kowalczyk and Scott Carrara. The gist of the complaint was that Cachopa and Ciampa, aided by the Board, had carried on in 2004 and 2005 a systematic campaign of retaliatory harassment against Chamberlin, Wohlgemuth and other officers who had either opposed Cachopa or remained neutral in the recall campaign. One of those other officers, Sergeant Robert Welch, brought his own suit against Cachopa, Ciampa and other defendants. See Welch v. Ciampa, 542 F.3d 927 (1st Cir. 2008) (reversing and remanding in part the dismissal of his claims).
Some of the actions alleged by Chamberlin and Wohlgemuth were petty but a few were more serious; collectively, they arguably alleged enough harm to constitute a viable claim–assuming that the actions were taken for a purpose unlawful under federal or state law. They included inconvenient changes of office and shift for the two plaintiffs, depriving Wohlgemuth of access to many offices in the station, unjustified reprimands, imposing limitations on the plaintiffs’ preexisting authority, requiring them to wear blue shirts instead of senior officer white and inflicting inappropriate medical and other examinations on Chamberlin.
The connection of the defendants other than Cachopa and Ciampa with these events was left obscure in the complaint save for one episode involving other town officials. In January 2005, the Town threatened to sue Chamberlin if he neither retired nor returned retirement incentive pay (allegedly totaling $21,000) which he had received after he initially agreed to retire. The Town did in fact bring such a suit, abandoning it when Chamberlin–out on vacation and then sick leave since November 2004–retired at the end of March 2005.
Several different statutes were invoked–the Massachusetts Whistleblower Statute, Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 149, § 185(b) (2009), the Massachusetts Civil Rights Act, id. ch. 12, § 11I, and the federal civil rights statute, 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (2006), based on the First Amendment–together with a charge of abuse of process relating to the Town’s lawsuit. In addition to this final common law claim, each of three categories of protected speech was made the subject of several different statutory claims and each was stated separately for each plaintiff–resulting in 17 counts. Different defendants appeared in the various counts.
The allegation of retaliation for seeking a return of the money given to Chamberlain for retirement incentive was tenuous at best. He had been given the money as a retirement incentive and then failed to retire, resulting in a breach of an implied contract with the town. It does put to rest another chapter in the Stoughton fiasco however. The dissenting opinion does raise some excellent points, in stating “LIPEZ, Circuit Judge, dissenting in part. Although the majority affirms the district court’s grant of a directed verdict in favor of Ciampa, it does not do so on the familiar ground that no reasonable jury could find Ciampa liable for retaliation based on the evidence presented at the first trial. Instead, it concludes that any error in the granting of the directed verdict for Ciampa was “harmless” because of the rejection of plaintiffs’ claims against Cachopa by a different jury in a subsequent trial. In my view, this harmless error analysis is unprecedented and unsupportable. Therefore, I respectfully dissent from the decision to affirm the directed verdict in favor of Ciampa.”
Attorney Ronald A. Sellon