Police Chief Sued In Official Capacity Only Held Immune Under MCRA

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Police Chief Sued In Official Capacity Only Held Immune Under MCRA: Stetson v. Ashland, Worcester Super. Ct., C.A. No. 03-02348-C (September 5, 2008)

G.L. c. 12, § 11I, the Massachusetts Civil Rights Act (“MCRA”), does not extend to claims against a municipality, since a municipality does not qualify as a “person” within the meaning of G.L. c. 12, § 11H. Howcroft v. City of Peabody, 51 Mass. App. Ct. 573, 591-592 (2001). A suit brought against a public official in his “official capacity” is, in effect, a suit against his employer. O’Malley v. Sheriff of Worcester County, 415 Mass. 132, 141 n.13 (1993). It therefore follows that a MCRA claim brought against a municipal official in his official capacity is barred.

PD &P recently obtained summary judgment on all 11 counts brought against the former Ashland Police Chief by the plaintiff, a former volunteer auxiliary police officer. The Town terminated plaintiff when it became aware that he had lied to the State Police, exaggerating his employment experience with the Town on an application for a private detective’s license. The plaintiff’s subsequent Complaint against the Town and others included claims for wrongful termination, due process violations, intentional interference with advantageous relations, defamation, fraud, conversion and a violation of the MCRA. The Worcester Superior Court (Lemire, J.) initially granted summary judgment to the defendants – the Police Chief, as well as the Town of Ashland, the Ashland Police Department, and the Town Manager – on all but one count: plaintiff’s MCRA claim against the Police Chief.

PD &P subsequently filed a Motion for Reconsideration, contending that summary judgment was also proper on the remaining MCRA count because plaintiff’s suit against the Police Chief was in his official capacity only. The Complaint did not include language suggesting plaintiff sought to recover from the Chief in his individual capacity. In evaluating whether a defendant is sued in his individual or official capacity, courts will often look to the course of proceedings. Here, Judge Lemire highlighted several relevant factors in support of his determination that the Police Chief was not sued individually. First, the Complaint and its caption only referred to the Chief in his official capacity, as “Chief of Police for the Town of Ashland.” Second, the allegations against the Chief only involved actions taken during the performance of his official duties. Third, the Complaint did not include a request for punitive damages, which are only available against individually sued officials. Finally, the plaintiff never made a single reference during the course of proceedings disclosing an intent to sue the Chief individually, until he filed an opposition to the defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment. In his opposition, the plaintiff attempted to change the case caption of his filings to include claims asserted against the Chief as an individual. PD&P immediately filed a Motion to Strike plaintiff’s references to the Chief as an individual. Plaintiff’s counsel ultimately assented to the Motion, claiming his inclusion of the word “individually” was merely a mistake. Judge Lemire pointed to the motion practice and events that transpired concerning the case caption as being highly persuasive in reaching his decision in favor of the Chief.

Attorneys representing public officials and employees must not only play close attention as to how their clients are named in a complaint – either in an individual or official capacity, or both – but tthey must also monitor and guard against attempts by plaintiffs to change their theories of liability during the course of litigation. As the  Stetson case demonstrates, such vigilance can pay off.