Holbrook v. Casazza

Decision Date07 July 1987
Citation528 A.2d 774,204 Conn. 336
CourtConnecticut Supreme Court
PartiesJoan O. HOLBROOK v. Titus J. CASAZZA. Joan O. HOLBROOK v. Gala H. NORDQUIST.

William F. Gallagher, with whom were Evelyn A. Barnum and, on the brief, Steven J. Errante, New Haven, and David J. Peska, Clinton, for appellants (defendants).

Roger Sullivan, Branford, for appellee (plaintiff).

Before PETERS, C.J., and HEALEY, SHEA, CALLAHAN and MORAGHAN, JJ.

SHEA, Associate Justice.

The principal issue in these appeals is whether the statements of the defendants accusing the plaintiff of numerous improprieties in performing her duties as tax assessor in the town of Westbrook were made with actual malice. The plaintiff brought separate defamation actions against the defendants, members of the board of tax assessors for the town, seeking compensatory and exemplary damages for harm to her reputation, mental anguish, pain and suffering, public humiliation, and pecuniary loss alleged to have resulted from defamatory statements of the defendants. Following a trial in which the cases were consolidated, the jury returned verdicts against both defendants for an aggregate amount of $28,000 in general damages, $181,000 in special damages, and $77,477 in exemplary damages. While ordering remittiturs amounting to $3828 with respect to the awards of exemplary damages, the trial court denied the defendants' motions to set aside the verdicts against them, from which denials the defendants have appealed. We find no error.

From the evidence the jury could reasonably have found the following facts. In January, 1982, the defendant, Titus J. Casazza, obtained from an appraisal firm a reduction of $2300 in the appraised value of property belonging to him. Upon learning of this, the plaintiff, Joan O. Holbrook, then chairman of the board of assessors for the town, questioned Casazza about the use of his position as a member of the board of assessors in obtaining the reduction, and mentioned that Casazza's neighbors had not been accorded comparable treatment. Casazza responded angrily to a statement made by the plaintiff during that conversation "that it was quite unethical of him to use his office to further personal gain." Following this incident, Casazza remained away from the assessor's office for approximately one month. After his return on February 23, 1982, he spent "a good part of [the] time" investigating the office records with a view toward discovering any misconduct on the part of the plaintiff in her work as an assessor.

It was also on February 23, 1982, that an abstract compiling the 1981 decennial revaluations of real property in Westbrook was completed. The plaintiff, the most experienced member of the board of assessors, had performed most of the revaluation work. Because the board was comprised of three persons, the plaintiff, the defendant Casazza, and the defendant Gala H. Nordquist, the signing of the abstract by the plaintiff and Nordquist, a majority of the board, validated it as the grand list for the town. Casazza, who refused to sign, subsequently persuaded Nordquist that she had endorsed a list that had been wrongfully altered by the plaintiff. Concerned about this criticism, Nordquist "stayed home for a day or two" until asked by the plaintiff to return. Upon returning, an argument occurred during which the plaintiff told Nordquist that she "had no business being an assessor." Nordquist became angry, was "reduced to tears," and immediately went to the office of Donald Morrison, first selectman for the town, and told him of Casazza's criticisms.

During a series of meetings in March, 1982, the defendants complained to Morrison, other selectmen, and the town council of misconduct on the part of the plaintiff. Among the accusations were allegations of improper field card erasures and unauthorized reductions in property values for relatives and friends. Morrison, with the consent of the parties, requested an investigation of the complaint by the Connecticut Association of Assessing Officers, which appointed a committee to conduct the investigation. After examining the records in the assessors' office and inspecting several of the relevant properties, the committee, on April 27, 1982, issued its report finding "no wrongdoing on the part of" the plaintiff.

On the following day the defendants submitted a further complaint to the office of policy and management (OPM), the state agency charged with the supervision of municipal assessors. See General Statutes § 12-1c. In summary, the defendants accused the plaintiff of:

(1) unilaterally changing assessed values in violation of General Statutes § 12-62; 1 (2) making unauthorized substantive changes in the 1981 grand list in violation of General Statutes § 12-60; 2 (3) illegally erasing several hundred property assessments; (4) reducing the assessments upon properties owned by friends and family members; and (5) increasing the assessments upon properties owned by people who were in her disfavor. With respect to several of their accusations, the defendants, before filing their complaint, did not seek an explanation from the plaintiff of the reasons for her actions. Additionally, with respect to their allegations of favoritism, the defendants did not "go back and consult the 1971 book to see what if any reductions were given in 1971." The defendants, furthermore, neither consulted an attorney nor sought the advice of any other assessors.

On June 22, 1982, the OPM released a committee report finding that all of the contested changes made by the plaintiff had been "appropriate," that no evidence existed of "partiality or bias," and therefore that the defendants' accusations were "invalid." At first selectman Morrison's request, however, the report included a comment that erasing, the method used by the plaintiff to correct field cards, while not illegal, was not the preferred method, which is "to draw a line through the value to be changed and enter the new value."

Casazza nevertheless filed another complaint with the supervisor of the OPM in which he repeated his previous accusations. The OPM declined to reopen its investigation. On September 22, 1982, the plaintiff mailed to the defendants a demand for retraction of their accusations, but the defendants refused to comply.

During the spring and summer of 1982, the news media provided extensive coverage of the controversy between the parties. The media detailed the charges of misconduct underlying the investigations of the plaintiff, and numerous articles featured quotations from Casazza. The impact of the defendants' accusations upon the plaintiff's reputation resulted in the plaintiff being dropped from consideration for the newly created position of single assessor for the town. Additionally, after having applied for assessor positions in fifty-two towns within a one hundred mile radius of Westbrook, at least three of which were actively seeking an assessor, the plaintiff received only one interview, which did not result in a job offer. The plaintiff, furthermore, felt compelled to move from Westbrook to an adjoining community.

The plaintiff brought the present actions in November, 1982. In these appeals from the judgments rendered by the trial court in accordance with verdicts for the plaintiff, the defendants claim: (1) that the evidence was insufficient to support findings of falsity and malice; (2) that the trial court erred in various aspects of its jury charge; (3) that the allusion by the plaintiff's counsel during trial to an indemnification of the defendants by the town warranted a mistrial; (4) that the court erred in excluding evidence of the sale price of property owned by the plaintiff's husband; and (5) that the damage awards are excessive.

I

The rule set forth by the United States Supreme Court in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 279-80, 84 S.Ct. 710, 726, 11 L.Ed.2d 686 (1964), prohibits a public official from recovering damages for a defamatory falsehood unless he proves that the false "statement was made with 'actual malice'--that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not." See also St. Amant v. Thompson, 390 U.S. 727, 730-31, 88 S.Ct. 1323, 1325, 20 L.Ed.2d 262 (1968). Further, those who "are properly classed as public figures and those who hold governmental office may recover for injury to reputation only on clear and convincing proof that the defamatory falsehood was made with" such actual malice. Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323, 342, 94 S.Ct. 2997, 3008, 41 L.Ed.2d 789 (1974). In this appeal the plaintiff concedes that, as a tax assessor, she "had substantial responsibility for the conduct of her office in establishing property values and therefore was a public official according to standards set by federal law." Cf. New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, supra (elected commissioner as public official); Moriarty v. Lippe, 162 Conn. 371, 294 A.2d 326 (1972) (patrolman); Ryan v. Dionne, 28 Conn.Sup. 35, 248 A.2d 583 (1968) (tax collector).

The jury affirmatively answered special interrogatories submitted by the court, expressly finding that (1) the defendants uttered and published defamatory statements about the plaintiff, and that, by clear and convincing evidence, such statements (2) were false and (3) were made with actual malice. The defendants first claim that the trial court erred in denying their motions to set aside the verdict and render judgment notwithstanding the verdict because the verdict is not supported by the evidence.

A

We must preliminarily determine the proper standard of appellate review. Appellate courts ordinarily do not disturb the facts as found by a jury unless it appears that the evidence furnished no reasonable basis for the jury's conclusions. Moriarty v. Lippe, supra, 162 Conn. at 374, 294 A.2d 326; Petrizzo v. Commercial Contractors Corporation, 152 Conn. 491, 499, ...

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