High court hears appeal from imprisoned state trooper
In this file photo, former state trooper James Conrad talks with his attorney, Chuck Douglas, before the opening of his lawsuit against the state police for wrongful termination last year. (Alexander Cohn/ Monitor file) Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »
For James Conrad, May 18, 2012, was a day of retribution. Nearly five years after the former state trooper was locked in an office and then briefly jailed following an altercation with his superiors at police headquarters, a jury found he had been falsely imprisoned and awarded him $1.5 million in damages. Most important, said his attorney, Chuck Douglas, on that day Conrad won back “his good name.”
But just six weeks later, Douglas told state Supreme Court justices on Thursday, the trial judge stripped it away, ruling that the officials involved had acted in the name of public safety and that the state was therefore immune from the penalty. Police officers are afforded a level of immunity from lawsuits when acting in the public’s interest.
Douglas argued before the justices that Merrimack County Superior Court Judge Larry Smukler, in issuing his ruling, had misconstrued facts from the trial and had failed to consider evidence in a light most favorable to his client, a standard that he said must be met when issuing what’s called a directed verdict.
Conrad spent three weeks in a state psychiatric hospital and was fired after the November 2007 incident in Concord, which began when he refused to be questioned by then-Lt. Mark Myrdek about allegations he had entered his estranged wife’s home in violation of a protective order. The two started arguing, according to court testimony, and Conrad told Myrdek he quit. When Myrdek refused to accept the resignation, Conrad marched out of his office and punched a wall, at which point a group of his colleagues tackled him to the ground. Conrad spent the next two hours in Myrdek’s office, where he reportedly became suicidal.
Myrdek and other officials involved said they had acted out of concern for the safety of Conrad and his family, noting that Conrad had been previously placed on desk duty after his wife reported at one point that he had locked himself in a room with a gun.
But in an earlier motion to reconsider, Douglas and another attorney, Kevin Leonard, argued that Conrad’s wife had complained to police officials in their capacity as employers, not as law enforcement officers. Douglas told justices that the officials involved had been charged in both capacities, and as such should have been subject to the penalty under their role as employers.
“I don’t know about that,” said Justice Carol Ann Conboy. “How does the trial court – how do we know what the basis for the jury’s verdict was? Because couldn’t the trial court legitimately say, ‘Well, the jury may have found that as employers the conduct was wrong but I, as the judge who has to make the legal issue on immunity, find that their conduct as police officers allows there to be immunity?’ ”
Conboy noted that Smukler’s order had not effectively reversed the jury’s verdict.
“You seem to be saying the jury’s verdict drives the legal analysis on immunity,” she told Douglas. “There was no question that false imprisonment was in fact proved. It was proved.”
Conboy and other justices seemed confused over why Smukler hadn’t answered the immunity question sooner, before the trial took place. Douglas said Smukler had told attorneys he wanted to first understand who was at fault and to what extent. But Chief Justice Linda Stewart Dalianis said she didn’t understand why that should have mattered.
“If factual issues didn’t matter, why did he defer it?” she asked the state’s attorney, Linda Lombardi.
“He shouldn’t have,” Lombardi said.
It’s unclear what will happen should the court uphold Smukler’s ruling.
“If we decide there is sovereign immunity for the actions after the tackling, then, given the general verdict, don’t we have to send it back for a new trial, on the issues that happened before the tackling?” Justice James Bassett asked Douglas.
Douglas responded that it had become evident throughout the trial that police officials were acting as employers.
In her argument, though, Lombardi said the jury’s verdict and Smukler’s ruling had no bearing on each other. She added that Smukler would have reached the same conclusion even if he had somehow evaluated the evidence in a way more agreeable to Conrad.
“Even if you take the facts in the most favorable light, it still leads to immunity,” she said.
(Jeremy Blackman can be reached at 369-3319, email@example.com or on Twitter @JBlackmanCM.)