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Smith v. Town of West Bridgewater

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

July 10, 2018

ROBERT SMITH, Plaintiff,


          F. Dennis Saylor, IV United States District Judge.

         This is an action for alleged whistleblower retaliation. Plaintiff Robert Smith was employed as a special police officer in the town of West Bridgewater for more than thirteen years. He contends that he was suspended and then removed from his position in retaliation after he reported to the police chief that his sergeant was giving special treatment to a town selectman, who was also a close friend of the sergeant. The individual defendants and the Town of West Bridgewater contend that he was not reappointed because of his record of insubordination, and have filed separate motions for summary judgment as to all the remaining claims against them.

         Because Smith did not have a property interest in his continued employment as a special police officer, the individual defendants' motion for summary judgment will be granted as to his due-process claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. That is the only federal claim asserted in this matter. The Court will decline to exercise its discretion to retain supplemental jurisdiction over the remaining state-law claims, and therefore will remand the case to Plymouth County Superior Court.

         I. Background

         A. Factual Background

         The following facts are undisputed unless otherwise indicated.

         1. The Parties

         Robert Smith was appointed as a Special Police Officer (“SPO”) for the West Bridgewater Police Department (“WPD”) on October 30, 2002. (Ind. Defs. SMF Ex. 3). He previously served as a sergeant in the WPD before retiring in 2002. (Id. Ex. 4 at 46:18-47:15, 60:10-12). Smith's last day of employment was on May 5, 2016. (Id. Ex. 4 at 34:10-35:9).

         The Town of West Bridgewater (“Town”) employed Smith through the WPD. (Ind. Defs. SMF Ex. 3).

         Jerry Lawrence is a selectman for the Town, who has served continuously since 2006. (Ind. Defs. SMF Ex. 7 at 10:19-11:2).

         Donald Clark is a former WPD police officer. (Ind. Defs. SMF Ex. 20 at 10:7-9). He began his employment in 1986, and was made Chief of Police in 2004. (Id. Ex. 20 at 10:7-9, 15:20-24). He retired in July 2016. (Id. Ex. 20 at 17:11-22).

         Victor R. Flaherty, Jr. is the current WPD Chief of Police, appointed on March 9, 2016. (Ind. Defs. SMF Ex. 5 at 5:3-7).

         Christopher Werner is a sergeant with the WPD. (Ind. Defs. SMF Ex. 13 at 9:13-15). He joined the WPD in 1996 and was promoted to sergeant in August 2005. (Id. Ex. 13 at 6:3-8, 9:13-15).

         2. Officer Monteiro Encounters Lawrence

         Smith retired from the WPD force in 2002, and soon after was appointed to the position of SPO with WPD. (Ind. Defs. SMF Ex. 3, Ex. 4 at 60:10-12). According to Smith, on April 12, 2015, WPD Officer Matthew Monteiro asked to speak with him at the WPD station. (Ind. Defs. SMF Ex. 4 at 203:23-204:14). Monteiro told him that he recently pulled over Lawrence for several driving violations, including an expired inspection sticker, driving without his license in his possession, and attaching license plates to an incorrect vehicle. (Id. Ex. 4 at 204:22-205:14; see Id. Ex. 11 at 9:1-10:21, 16:16-17:1, 32:23-33:4). Smith testified that Monteiro was upset because Werner had told him to release Lawrence with no further police action and not to enter the stop in the logbook. (Ind. Defs. SMF Ex. 4 at 205:4-206:15).

         Monteiro testified that he recognized Lawrence's name when he stopped him and knew that he was a selectman. (Ind. Defs. SMF Ex. 11 at 11:16-12:3, 14:10-22). As a relatively new officer who had served just 14 months, he called Werner, his superior, to ask advice on how to proceed. (Id. Ex. 11 at 11:15-12:19).[1] After the call, Monteiro released Lawrence with a verbal warning and did not enter the incident into the official police log. (Id. Ex. 11 at 19:12-18).[2] He could not remember whether he had yelled at Lawrence during the stop. (Id. Ex. 11 at 19:24-20:15, 41:17-42:19). At some point, Monteiro learned that another officer had noticed a problem with Lawrence's plates approximately two weeks before Monteiro stopped him, but he could not remember when he learned that. (Id. Ex. 11 at 35:1-36:4; see Id. Ex. 13 at 46:4-48:11; id. Ex. 7 at 31:5-12).

         Werner testified that he did not specifically tell Monteiro how to proceed during the motor-vehicle stop, but only informed him that he had discretion to release Lawrence with a warning. (Ind. Defs. SMF Ex. 13 at 28:9-29:21). According to Werner, officers also have discretion as to whether motor-vehicle stops are logged into the WPD system. (Id. Ex. 13 at 38:5-41:23). Werner testified that at the time he spoke to Monteiro on the phone he did not know that another officer, Officer Winkler, had previously noticed that there was an issue with Lawrence's plates. (Id. Ex. 13 at 45:22-46:7). At some point, however, he learned that Winkler had seen Lawrence's car parked in the parking lot of the Town Hall and noticed that the plates were registered to a different vehicle. (Id. Ex. 13 at 46:4-48:12). Werner also testified that he and Lawrence had been close personal friends for many years, although they had recently grown a little bit distant. (Id. Ex. 13 at 10:6-18). In recounting a conversation with Lawrence sometime after Monteiro pulled him over, Werner stated that Lawrence was upset over being lectured by the officer during the stop. (Id. Ex. 13 at 32:9-33:8).

         Lawrence testified that he apologized to Monteiro and told him that Winkler had told him to take care of the registration issue weeks ago. (Ind. Defs. SMF Ex. 7 at 31:5-12). He said Monteiro yelled at him and told him he should be ashamed of himself. (Id. Ex. 7 at 31:14-16, 32:19-33:1). He testified that he was “pretty shaken at the way [he] was talked to” and that four or five days later he contacted the police station to say that “if I ever heard an officer talk to anybody the way he was talking to me, other than someone that has committed a violent crime, I would be really not happy as a selectman.” (Id. Ex. 7 at 40:5-17).

         3.Smith Encounters Lawrence

         On April 22, 2015, Smith was assigned by WPD to perform detail work in West Bridgewater. (Ind. Defs. SMF Ex. 4 at 211:13-212:1).[3] During his shift, Smith saw Lawrence near the playground area of the Howard School and his car parked in the parking lot nearby. (Id. Ex. 4 at 213:5-19). Lawrence approached him and asked how he was enjoying his retirement. (Id. Ex. 4 at 214:4-24). Smith responded by asking Lawrence if he had taken care of his car registration, and he said that he had. (Id. Ex. 4 at 215:1-8). After Lawrence had left, Smith called the WPD unrecorded dispatch line from his cell phone to request that they run Lawrence's plates through their system. (Id. Ex. 4 at 216:1-217:3). The desk officer on the line ran the plates and told Smith they were active. (Id. Ex. 4 at 217:2-3).

         According to defendants, at the time of the call from Smith, WPD had a policy that SPOs were not to engage in law enforcement activities (such as calling in license plates) while working a detail. (Ind. Defs. SMF Ex. 6). This stated policy was set forth in a memorandum that was issued by WPD Chief of Police Anderson in 1992. (Id.). Smith testified that he had heard of the memorandum at the time of the call on April 22, 2015, but had never actually seen it and believed it did not constitute official policy. (Ind. Defs. SMF Ex. 4 at 117:2-24, 119:11-17, 126:1-9). According to Smith, the memorandum was referred to as the “Tuck Rule, ” and was written to apply only to a former officer named Phil Tuck, who pulled over multiple cars while working private details, leading the private companies involved to complain that he was not doing the job that they hired him to do. (Id. Ex. 4 at 126:6-128:11). Werner testified that SPOs have made arrests while on detail despite the memorandum. (Id. Ex. 13 at 15:24-16:19). Monteiro also testified that officers working a detail have previously called into WPD dispatch to run plates, that he is not aware of any rule or policy against it, and that he had never heard of anyone getting suspended for doing that. (Id. Ex. 11 at 39:10-40:5).

         Werner overheard Smith's call into the WPD to run Lawrence's plates while he was working near the dispatch center. (Ind. Defs. SMF Ex. 13 at 59:1-12). He testified that he found the call unusual because SPOs do not normally call in plates. (Id. Ex. 13 at 59:22-60:6). Werner testified that he discussed the matter with Flaherty, who told him to speak with Smith and remind him that SPOs are not issued citation ...

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