Jury awards $1.5 million to Fitchburg police chief candidate
WORCESTER – A federal jury Monday awarded $1.5 million in damages to Scott L. Heagney, the law enforcement officer who alleged Fitchburg's former mayor acted improperly when she abruptly withdrew his nomination for police chief in 2014.
In a 10-page verdict form filed by the jury Monday in U.S. District Court, jurors agreed that one of several allegedly defamatory statements made by former mayor Lisa A Wong about Mr. Heagney was in fact defamatory. They also found that, although evidence about Mr. Heagney's background existed that would have prevented the city from offering him a job, the city did not duly acquire that evidence until after it pulled its nomination.
"The ruling is disappointing but I know I worked hard every day to do what was best for Fitchburg," Ms. Wong wrote in a message Monday.
Ms. Wong's successor, Mayor Stephen L. DiNatale, said Monday he is also disappointed in the ruling, which he intends to speak about at length with lawyers for the city and its insurance company.
Mr. DiNatale said it would be premature to comment on whether the city plans to contest the ruling.
"We're going to be talking about this over the next few weeks, at which time we'll be assessing all the city's options, including, but not necessarily limited to, of course, filing an appeal," he said.
Mr. Heagney, an agent of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, was Ms. Wong's announced choice for police chief in March 2014. But before a confirmation vote by the City Council, she pulled the nomination, saying Mr. Heagney omitted details on his application about his work experience and failed to disclose the existence of a sealed court case in which he was acquitted for assault and battery at age 21.
The action came shortly after the city received an anonymous letter that painted Mr. Heagney and members of his family, two of whom served on the Attleboro police force, in a negative light. In his lawsuit, Mr. Heagney argued the letter likely came from factions within the Attleboro Police Department angry with his brother – the chief there – over his work to clean up corruption. He called the allegations false and alleged the city did not do its due diligence to investigate them.
Jurors were asked to answer numerous questions on a 10-page verdict form, including three questions about whether Ms. Wong defamed Mr. Heagney in statements to newspapers and several questions related to alleged employment discrimination.
The jury found that Ms. Wong spoke truthfully when she told the Telegram & Gazette and another newspaper in 2014 that Mr. Heagney withheld important information about his work resume and character. It found she did make a defamatory statement to the T&G on March 20, 2014, however, by falsely stating that Mr. Heagney "was not forthcoming ... about a court case on alleged assault and battery and other charges when he was 21."
That statement was worth $125,000 in reputational damages, the jury opined, and an additional $625,000 in damages for associated economic losses.
The remaining $750,000 of the jury award was for punitive damages; the jury found the city's conduct, including Ms. Wong's, was "outrageous or egregious," and that the sum was necessary to punish the city for its "illegal" conduct and deter it from future transgressions.
The jury found that the city discriminated against Mr. Heagney by retracting its job offer based partly or significantly on his failure to disclose an alleged violation of law for which he was not convicted.
In 2014, Mr. Heagney told the T&G he was found not guilty at a trial for assault and battery in 1988 following allegations he said an ex-girlfriend made in retaliation for their breakup.
Nicholas B. Carter, one of Mr. Heagney's lawyers, said Monday that the verdict shows Mr. Heagney was "badly mistreated and harmed" by former mayor Wong and the city.
"He feels vindicated by the jury's decision," Mr. Carter said.
Mr. Heagney's lawsuit also named the city's consulting company, BadgeQuest, but the two sides reached an undisclosed settlement prior to trial.