In Fitchburg defamation row, federal court reverses decision that awarded official $1.5 million
A federal appeals court Monday reversed a $1.5 million decision against the city of Fitchburg, ruling that the city’s former mayor did not defame a candidate for police chief.
In 2015, Scott. L. Heagney sued the city and former mayor Lisa Wong, claiming that officials had violated his rights by basing their decision not to hire him on his failure to disclose a decades-old criminal case that ended with his acquittal, according to the Monday’s decision.
Heagney also alleged that Wong, in explaining the decision not to hire him, defamed him through statements that she made to local news outlets, according to a court filing. At trial, a federal jury awarded Heagney $1.5 million in damages, according to court documents.
But Monday’s ruling held that “Wong did not actively fabricate an allegation of misconduct to use as an excuse for her decision not to nominate Heagney.”
“The city of Fitchburg is delighted,” said Leon Kesten, a lawyer who represented Wong and the city. “We knew that justice would triumph in the end.”
Heagney applied for the Fitchburg police chief position in October 2013. At the time, he worked for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives.
He did not include on his resume jobs at the Attleboro, Falmouth, and Franklin police departments, according to court documents.
He also answered “no” when asked on an application if he had ever been disciplined, fired, or forced to resign because of misconduct, according to the ruling. Additionally, he answered “no” to a question about whether there were any issues the city should be made aware of during a background investigation.
But personnel files revealed that an ex-girlfriend of Heagney’s alleged he physically abused and threatened her with a pistol in 1988, according to the ruling. He was placed on temporary leave at the Franklin Police Department, according to court documents. He was later acquitted of the charges.
Personnel files also revealed disciplinary actions against Heagney for allegations that included fabricating a police report, acting unprofessional during a suicide watch, and failing to appear in court for a trial, the ruling stated.
After the allegations came to light, Wong withdrew her nomination of Heagney in March 2014, telling the Worcester Telegram & Gazette that Heagney was not forthcoming about his work experience or about the assault case.
Heagney sued, claiming Wong had defamed him.
A federal jury found a statement of Wong’s to be false and defamatory and that Fitchburg violated an anti-discrimination law.
Wong and the city appealed to the First Circuit, which reversed the judgment on the defamation claim. It affirmed the judgment on the discrimination claim, but reversed the award of punitive damages.
Heagney’s attorney, Nick Carter, said he was “pleased that the First Circuit affirmed the finding of discrimination.”
“That’s an important decision,” he said. “We’re obviously disappointed that the First Circuit reversed on the defamation and punitive damages award and we’re reviewing the decision.”