Police say free speech is on their side in lawsuit

By J.J. Huggins | Eagle Tribune

METHUEN — Police officers being sued for slander by one of their own have the First Amendment on their side, according to their attorney.

Sgt. Larry Phillips is suing the city, police Chief Joseph Solomon, Capt. Randy Haggar, Lt. Michael Pappalardo, Capt. Katherine Lavigne, Officer Joseph Aiello, Officer Ronald Valliere and the patrolmen’s union.

He alleges Solomon financed a blog that spread false information about Phillips, including accusations of alcoholism, sexual harassment, bullying, domestic abuse, assault on officers and violations of ethics laws.

Attorney Austin Joyce, who represents Solomon, Haggar, Lavigne and Pappalardo, said Phillips failed to specify “who made what statements when” on the blog.

“Furthermore, as a police officer, the plaintiff is a public figure for First Amendment defamation analysis,” Joyce wrote in a motion to dismiss the lawsuit. “The burden on the plaintiff, therefore, is to establish clearly and convincingly that each defendant published specific false and defamatory factual material about the plaintiff with ‘actual malice,’ defined as knowledge that the facts were false or with reckless disregard whether the facts were false or not.”

City Solicitor Peter McQuillan said in court papers that the city is not liable for the tortious actions of its employees.

 

Phillips says he cooperated with the FBI for an investigation of Solomon in 2006. He alleges that Solomon ordered him not to charge the chief’s then brother-in-law, James Caron, in a theft case. Phillips reported the interference to the FBI and then became the victim of a campaign to harass him and tarnish his reputation, according to his lawsuit.

Phillips alleges that Pappalardo attempted to “dig up dirt” about domestic violence involving Phillips, Solomon ordered Lavigne to investigate Phillips based upon a “shoddy” allegation of harassment of a dispatcher and two officers, Aiello — as union president — filed frivolous grievances against Phillips, Valliere fabricated an allegation that Phillips assaulted him, and Haggar solicited complaints about Phillips and encouraged officers to fabricate allegations.

Attorney Bryan Decker, who represents Aiello, Valliere and the union, said the grievance procedure “is a cornerstone of collective bargaining.” Decker said Phillips failed to allege how Valliere’s actions harmed Phillips.

Phillips alleges he was removed from the department’s all-terrain vehicle unit without a hearing, but McQuillan argued that such assignments are up to the chief.

Phillips said he was suspended for 30 days starting on Aug. 25, 2007, but does not know why.

The defendants’ attorneys have filed motions to dismiss the lawsuit, saying some of Phillips’ claims are too old and he failed to illustrate a conspiracy against him.

Phillips’ attorney, Alexander Cain, said the argument that Phillips was aware of his perceived harm in August 2007 appears to have merit “at first blush.”

“On further inquiry, however, it becomes clear that plaintiff could not know that this suspension was merely one act in a long series of violations that constituted a continuous course of conduct designed to smear plaintiff’s reputation,” Cain wrote in an argument against the motion to dismiss.

If you are a member of the Massachusetts Police Association Legal Defense Fund and in need of an attorney to defend your rights, contact the Massachusetts legal defense attorneys at Reardon, Joyce, & Akerson for an initial consultation.

Reardon, Joyce & Akerson, PC
Massachusetts Police Defense Attorneys
4 Lancaster Terrace
Worcester, MA 01609

Telephone (508) 754-7285 • Fax (508) 754-7220