Selectmen May Be Sued for Demoting Chief
The Massachusetts Appeals Court has waded into the seemingly never-ending internal strife in the Town of Stoughton Police Department. In the case of Cachopa v. Town of Stoughton, #07-P-1247 (Sept. 15, 2008), the Court interpreted the little-used legal theory of “intentional interference with contractual relationship” and ruled that the Chief may sue the Town and Individual Selectmen for demoting him. The case underscores the risks faced by Town employees who also serve in elected positions.
For the past several years, the Stoughton Police Department has been beset by various public controversies, including sting operations of a liquor store run by a future Selectman, a police officer’s suicide, no confidence votes against the liquor-store-owning Selectman, the demotion of the Chief, and his subsequent reinstatement as Chief. Following his demotion by the Board of Selectmen, the Chief sued the Town and Selectmen – including one who works as a Stoughton police officer – for “intentional interference with contractual relationship.” The Chief produced evidence showing that a Selectman – whose store was prosecuted by the Chief for selling alcohol to minors – told the Chief that he would be reinstated if the Chief appointed another Selectman – the one who is a police officer – back to a plum police assignment.
The Court ruled that these two Selectmen may be individually liable for their actions to demote and/or replace the Chief. To support a theory of intentional interference with contractual relationship, there must be evidence that the infliction of economic harm was motivated by malice. Here, the Court ruled that a jury could find that the Selectman/liquor store owner was improperly retaliating against the Chief for the repeated prosecution of his liquor store, the Chief’s refusal to assign the other Selectman to a plum assignment, and the no-confidence votes. Meanwhile, the Court found that police officer/Selectman also may be liable. Although the officer abstained from voting to terminate the Chief, his vote to name an acting chief was equivalent to demoting the Chief and these actions could be interpreted by a jury to have been motivated by his anger and frustration over the Chief’s bypass of him as Deputy Chief and for a particular assignment.
The Appeals Court technically did not find that the individual selectmen are liable. The Court’s ruling merely says there is enough evidence for a jury to decide whether “malice,” rather than job performance, was the reason for the Chief’s temporary demotion.
The Cachopa case also highlights the financial risks assumed by elected officials. The Appeals Court ruled that the individual selectmen, when sued in their personal capacity, did not qualify for governmental immunity under the Massachusetts