First Circuit Court of Apeals Affirms Judgment in Favor of Fall River Police Chief in Case Involving Allegation of Rape by a Police Officer

In a recent First Circuit decision concerning civil liability for police supervisors, Saldivar v. Racine, 818 F.3d 14 (2016), Reardon, Joyce & Akerson, P.C. (“RJA”) successfully represented the Fall River Chief of Police in a civil rights lawsuit in which the plaintiff, who sought $750,000.00 in damages, claimed that she had been assaulted and raped by a Fall River police officer.  According to the plaintiff, a Fall River police officer arrived at her apartment to investigate a complaint that she made earlier in the day and, once the officer was inside the residence, he threatened her with his gun and assaulted her sexually.  The officer later resigned his position with the Department.

The plaintiff filed a civil rights lawsuit naming the officer, the Chief of Police and the City of Fall River as defendants.  The City declined to represent the officer, who was not a member of the Massachusetts Police Association Legal Defense Fund, and the officer later had a judgment in the amount of $600,000.00 entered against him.

The Chief of Police was a member of the Legal Defense Fund and was represented in the action by RJA.  Before the federal district court, RJA convinced the plaintiff’s attorney to dismiss voluntarily two of the three counts that named the Chief as a defendant, leaving only a federal civil rights claim alleging supervisory liability.  The foundation for the claim against the Chief was that, in the years before the officer’s sexual assault of the plaintiff, he had been disciplined on eleven occasions for misconduct, including for a failure to maintain a valid license to carry a firearm at the time of the sexual assault, and that such a high volume of discipline should have placed the Chief on adequate notice of the officer’s propensity to engage in wrongdoing.  If the Chief had taken additional steps to train and supervise the officer, or if he had fired the officer for the prior misconduct, the plaintiff said that her rape could have been prevented.

At the federal district court level, RJA filed a motion to dismiss the sole remaining claim against the Chief, which was granted by the court.  The plaintiff then appealed that decision to the First Circuit Court of Appeals.

The First Circuit affirmed the judgment entered in favor of the Chief.  In particular, the First Circuit noted that, while the subordinate officer had engaged in various types of wrongdoing over the years before the assault, the nature of the prior misconduct most notably did not include allegations of violent or sexual misbehavior.  Without prior wrongdoing of a sufficiently similar type to provide notice to the Chief of the officer’s propensity to engage in the type of misconduct alleged by the plaintiff, the First Circuit explained that it reasonably could not be said that the Chief should have been on notice for this type of event and should have taken, in the period of time prior to the rape, steps designed to minimize or eliminate the potential for such misconduct.  Without adequate notice of the propensity for this type of misconduct, the Chief could not be held responsible under a theory of supervisory liability for what occurred.

Two officers were named as defendants in this lawsuit.  One, a member of the Massachusetts Police Association Legal Defense Fund, was dismissed upon a motion and has seen that dismissal affirmed by the First Circuit.  The other, not a member of the Legal Defense Fund, has had a $600,000.00 judgment entered against him personally.

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