Schnabel v. Tyler

Decision Date09 August 1994
Docket NumberNo. 14853,14853
CourtConnecticut Supreme Court
PartiesPhilip H. SCHNABEL v. Clyde R. TYLER.

Scott M. Karsten, with whom, on the brief, was Elliot B. Spector, West Hartford, for appellant (plaintiff).

Kathleen Eldergill, Manchester, for appellee (defendant).

Before PETERS, C.J., and CALLAHAN, BORDEN, BERDON and KATZ, JJ. BERDON, Associate Justice.

The principal issue in this certified appeal is whether, in an action seeking damages for violation of federal civil rights, the chief of police was entitled to qualified immunity.

The plaintiff, Philip Schnabel, the chief of police of the town of Rocky Hill, brought suit against the defendant, Clyde Tyler, a Rocky Hill police officer, seeking damages for defamation as the result of public comments made by Tyler about Schnabel. Tyler filed a five count counterclaim against Schnabel seeking damages for false imprisonment, intentional infliction of emotional distress, abuse of process, and violations of his federal civil rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (1988). 1 The two § 1983 counts are predicated on claimed violations of Tyler's constitutional rights to freedom of speech under the first amendment, and equal protection of the law under the fourteenth amendment to the United States constitution. The case was tried to a jury, which returned verdicts in favor of Tyler on Schnabel's complaint and on the five counts of Tyler's counterclaim. On the counterclaim, the jury awarded Tyler compensatory damages in the amount of $210,000 and punitive damages in the amount of $160,000. 2 The trial court denied Schnabel's postverdict motions and rendered judgment on the verdicts. Schnabel appealed to the Appellate Court, which affirmed the judgment of the trial court. Schnabel v. Tyler, 32 Conn.App. 704, 630 A.2d 1361 (1993). We granted Schnabel's petition for certification. 3 We affirm the judgment of the Appellate Court.

I

The following facts are either undisputed or could reasonably have been found by the jury. Prior to the incidents that form the basis for this action, the Connecticut commission on human rights and opportunities had investigated the Rocky Hill police department and had issued a report concluding that racist attitudes and behavior permeated the department. Compounding this controversy, according to Schnabel, was the fact that "many ... citizens ... would call Rocky Hill Police to report [that individuals were suspicious] simply because they were minority and were in Rocky Hill." The report and the racial controversy placed considerable pressure on the police department.

Subsequently, in February, 1988, a Rocky Hill service station owned by Isabelle Teed was the subject of an armed robbery. A rumor spread throughout the town that a hotel clerk had suspected that an individual he had seen on the day of the robbery had committed the robbery, but the clerk had not contacted the police because the suspect was an African-American male, and the clerk was concerned about being accused of racism by the police. Tyler spoke with Teed about this particular rumor and about a general belief held by some members of the community that the police department would summarily dismiss complaints against minorities for fear that they would be again accused of racism. Teed expressed a desire to speak before the meeting of the town council about these perceptions of the police department. Tyler encouraged Teed to speak out regarding her concerns. Teed then publicly criticized Schnabel at the town council meeting.

Robert Riley, deputy chief of police, and Joseph Corbin, chief of detectives, of the Rocky Hill police department, subsequently questioned Teed, and she told them that prior to the town council meeting she had spoken with a police officer, whom she declined to identify. Schnabel suspected that the police officer who had urged Teed to speak out critically against him was Tyler. As a result, Schnabel called Tyler into his office and demanded that Tyler explain the circumstances of his conversation with Teed. Tyler refused to answer any questions until he could have an opportunity to speak with the union attorney. Schnabel badgered and intimidated Tyler, confining him in his office. Schnabel finally allowed Tyler to leave, after suspending him without a hearing. He eventually issued a letter of reprimand to Tyler for refusing to answer the questions. The letter of reprimand contained an inaccurate and misleading description of Tyler's disciplinary record.

Tyler made a written complaint to Rocky Hill town manager Dana Whitman regarding the "interrogation." Whitman was Schnabel's direct supervisor. Tyler also filed a notice of intent to sue for damages for the detention under state and federal law. Articles were published in the Hartford Courant, a newspaper circulated throughout the state, regarding Tyler's allegations. Schnabel attempted to explain his behavior by accusing Tyler of revealing confidential information about an ongoing police investigation by talking to Teed about the hotel clerk. The jury could reasonably have found that this accusation was groundless and pretextual because the information concerning the hotel clerk was well known throughout the town. Indeed, two detectives assigned by Schnabel to investigate the robbery testified that they had been aware of the public nature of the rumor pertaining to the hotel clerk at the time. Schnabel also accused Tyler of placing the safety of a confidential informant in jeopardy, but presented no evidence to support this accusation.

The jury could also have reasonably found that, in a series of incidents following the initial "interrogation," Schnabel subjected Tyler to unwarranted disciplinary proceedings and other harassing and intimidating treatment in retaliation for Tyler's conversation with Teed and Tyler's speech in response to the interrogation. Some examples of these incidents are summarized as follows.

In March, 1988, Edson Sperry, a town resident, filed a complaint alleging that Tyler had driven through an intersection in his police cruiser at an excessive rate of speed. Schnabel assigned Lieutenant Philip Dunn to conduct an internal investigation. Eventually, Dunn determined that he could not substantiate the complaint. Nevertheless, Schnabel convened a disciplinary board of the police commission to hold a hearing on the matter. The hearing was held, and the board voted to absolve Tyler. Schnabel overruled the board's decision and imposed a one day suspension. Schnabel again significantly misrepresented Tyler's disciplinary record in the notice of suspension.

At a town council meeting in July, 1988, Tyler publicly protested Schnabel's conduct in the Sperry disciplinary proceeding. The New Britain Herald, a local newspaper, also published a letter to the editor by Tyler that was critical of Schnabel. Whitman, the town manager, subsequently overturned Schnabel's suspension of Tyler and exonerated Tyler of all charges relating to the Sperry complaint.

In July, 1988, Tyler attended a meeting of the Rocky Hill public safety committee, the subject of which was the discipline of Tyler arising out of the Sperry complaint. Tyler was on duty that evening, but received permission from his direct supervisor, John Herbst, to attend the meeting. During the meeting, there was a report of an armed robbery, and, on Herbst's direction, a dispatcher, Matthew Yoo, informed Tyler that he was not presently needed but that he should remain ready to leave the meeting if necessary. Shortly thereafter, Yoo informed Tyler that he should respond to the call, and Tyler did so.

Schnabel ordered an investigation of Tyler's conduct, accusing him of not responding immediately to the armed robbery. In the course of that investigation he attempted to coerce Yoo into altering a statement that Yoo had submitted pursuant to the investigation so that the statement would represent that Tyler had been informed that he had been "presently needed" rather than "not presently needed." Yoo refused to alter his statement, and provided Tyler with a second statement to this effect. Schnabel asked two detectives, Henry Dodenhoff and Charles Hedeen, to threaten Yoo with arrest if he did not disavow this second statement. Schnabel eventually sought arrest warrants against both Yoo and Tyler on the basis of the claim that they had tampered with physical evidence. Both warrant applications were rejected by the state's attorney's office, and no arrests took place.

In October, 1990, Schnabel attempted to terminate Tyler's employment, alleging that Tyler had been guilty of a continued pattern of misconduct and untruthfulness. Subsequently, he filed a disciplinary notice containing seventeen different charges against Tyler. A neutral fact finder, David Weinstein, was appointed, and he held an evidentiary hearing at which both sides were represented by counsel. Weinstein issued a report, finding that only one of the seventeen charges had merit, and recommending a two day suspension. This one charge related to the fact, acknowledged by Tyler at trial, that Tyler had lied to Schnabel in a meeting the morning after the "interrogation," stating that he had never met with Teed. Tyler testified that he had lied because "I thought the chief would go after me for speaking to Mrs. Teed."

Schnabel's retaliatory activities against Tyler continued after the hearing. In December, 1990, Tyler followed up on another officer's investigation involving the theft of a snowblower by meeting with its owner, Rosemarie Schaich. She stated to Tyler that the officer originally dispatched to investigate her complaint had indicated that due to budget cuts, the police department would not take fingerprints for such a minor crime. Schaich then went to the police department to complain that her case was not being properly investigated. Corbin and Hedeen wrote out a statement for her, which she signed,...

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