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$1.5M Defamation Ruling Against Fitchburg is Reversed

February 12, 2019

By Cliff Clark

cclark@sentinel andenterprise.com

BOSTON -- The first circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals has reversed a jury’s decision to award more than $1.5 million in damages to a former Fitchburg police chief candidate who filed a federal lawsuit in 2015 alleging former Mayor Lisa Wong defamed him by not hiring him for the position.

Writing for the appeals court, Judge David Barrons, in a 43-page ruling, found that Wong had not defamed police chief candidate Scott Heagney when she abruptly withdrew his name from consideration and made several statements to two local news outlets, the Sentinel & Enterprise and the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, about her decision.

Current Fitchburg Mayor Stephen DiNatale said he was “bouncing off the the ceiling” when he learned of the ruling.

“It’s certainly a big win for the city. The hardship on the city has been averted. Justice has been served,” he said.

The jury’s decision to award Heagney $1.5 million came after a nine-day trial. The jury found Wong defamed Heagney when she told reporters from the news outlets that Heagney “was not forthcoming... about a court case on alleged assault and battery and other charges when he was 21” and ruled it was “both false and defamatory,” according to the verdict of the original trial.

The jury’s finding of defamation and awarding Heagney $775,000 was based solely, wrote Barrons, on Wong’s statement about Heagney being not “forthcoming” about the earlier charges he faced while working as a police officer in several departments.

Barron, however, ruled “that truth is “an absolute defense” to a defamation claim and that Heagney had to prove that Wong’s statement was false, which the judge said Heagney did not do.

Essentially, wrote Barron, Wong’s statement about Heagney that he was “not forthcoming” about the court cases involving criminal charges that had been lodged against him was true.

“We conclude... that under the ordinary construction of the phrase ‘not forthcoming,’ Wong is right,” wrote Barrons in the ruling.

During the hiring process for replacing Fitchburg’s police chief in 2014, Heagney, according to court records, was told that a thorough and comprehensive background investigation would be conducted as part of the selection process and despite multiple opportunities to offer accurate details of the past charges never did.

In fact, Barrons wrote for the court, when Heagney was asked on the initial application form whether he had ever been disciplined, fired, or forced to resign because of misconduct or unsatisfactory employment or had any other issues the search committee should be aware of, he answered, “no.”

Heagney argued during the trial that because he had been acquitted of threatening a woman with a weapon, he had no statutory requirement to disclose the information.

The jury in the trial also found that Heagney had been discriminated against because he alleged the city did not hire him as chief because of the charges lodged against him in the past. Despite the jury’s finding, it did not award Heagney any compensatory damages, but relied on that finding to award Heagney $750,000 in punitive damages.

Barrons wrote that Fitchburg and Wong had asked on appeal for the jury verdict to be overturned, but didn’t challenge the claim of discrimination, only that the judge in the jury trial had not given the jury the correct instructions before it began to deliberate the case.

In awarding punitive damages, the jury must find that comments by Wong were “outrageous and egregious,” wrote Barrons and that punitive damages must be ordered to “deter such behavior” or “express public condemnation.”

The appeals court, wrote Barrons, found insufficient evidence that Wong had demonstrated outrageous or egregious behavior and overturned the jury’s decision to award punitive damages.

The court also ruled both parties are responsible for its own expenses incurred.

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