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'Fired officer sues town, police'

Last modified: 5/30/2012 12:00:00 AM
A former Weare police sergeant whose lawsuit against the town was dismissed in federal court earlier this year has filed a new lawsuit in state court, seeking compensation for wrongful termination, emotional damages and violation of his free speech rights.

Lou Chatel, who worked for the Weare police department from 2003 until 2010, suffered 'extreme emotional distress' caused by unnecessary disciplinary actions, an unwarranted child pornography investigation and termination from his job in Weare, the lawsuit alleges.

The 'pattern of harassment and intimidation,' according to the lawsuit, began after Chatel refused to improperly alter a police report. He filed a federal lawsuit in December 2010, arguing that his resistance to altering the report should be protected under the First Amendment right to free speech. A judge dismissed the case in April, ruling that federal law does not protect public employees' free speech.

Skip Campbell, Chatel's attorney, said state law has additional protections for free speech. In New Hampshire, 'you don't check your fundamental constitutional rights at the door when you go to work for a governmental entity,' he said.

The lawsuit, filed this month in Hillsborough County Superior Court, claims Chatel suffered emotional damages. It also alleges that, by disciplining Chatel, his superiors in the Weare Police Department interfered with Chatel's union contract. Those claims were not in the original federal lawsuit.

Chatel is now a director of security at a hospital in the western part of the state, Campbell said, because he was unable to find work as a police officer.

'He found that Weare had succeeded in destroying his ability to be employed in law enforcement,' Campbell said. 'Nobody would touch him.'

Chatel filed the lawsuit against the town of Weare, the Weare selectmen, police Chief Gregory Begin and police Lt. James Carney.

Mark Broth, the attorney representing the selectmen, Begin and Carney, said the town denies Chatel's allegations and did not violate free speech.

'The town denies any wrongdoing with regard to Mr. Chatel's termination from employment,' Broth said.

Harassment against Chatel began in October 2009, the lawsuit claims, when he was working as the police department's prosecutor and refused to alter a police report from an undercover drug investigation. Carney had overseen the investigation, and Chatel found insufficient evidence to charge one of the suspects.

Carney called Chatel to say he had 'f----- up (his) case,' according to court documents, and later asked him to alter the report because he believed it made the arresting officer look bad. Chatel altered one section of the report but refused to make every change Carney had demanded because he said his report was factually accurate.

Chatel later submitted a marked-up copy of the police report to Begin, and he received a letter of warning in January 2010 from Carney for 'conduct unbecoming an officer,' according to the lawsuit.

He received a second letter of warning on the same day, the lawsuit says, for disobeying Carney's instructions by asking another officer to stay and assist him at the scene of a multi-car accident. The warning about the police report was later rescinded by the Weare selectmen, and the selectmen upheld the warning about the accident.

In February 2010, Chatel was investigating a child pornography case for the Weare police, and took his department-issued laptop home to view the images as part of the investigation, according to the lawsuit. A few months later, Begin or Carney asked the state attorney general's office to investigate Chatel for manufacturing or possessing child pornography. The attorney general's office reported in September 2010 that it found no basis to support the allegations against Chatel.

Begin then insisted on further investigation of Chatel for possessing child pornography, and the Hillsborough County attorney's office also found nothing to support those allegations, the lawsuit says.

'So it wasn't enough for them, the Weare police, to just get rid of Chatel,' Campbell, Chatel's attorney, said yesterday. 'By pushing these investigations they were trying to utterly destroy him.'

While being investigated for pornography, the lawsuit says Chatel 'began suffering from severe anxiety with physical manifestations including, but not limited to, sleeplessness, and headaches.'

The lawsuit cites other examples of retaliation and harassment against Chatel; Carney demanded that Chatel address him as 'Lieutenant James Carney' in all written communications, and Chatel claims he was falsely accused of meeting an acquaintance while on duty, about which he received a 'letter of counseling' from Carney.

In April 2010, the Weare selectmen hired an attorney to replace Chatel as prosecutor, and he was reassigned to patrol duty on nights and weekends, according to the lawsuit.

Due to his anxiety, Chatel took a leave of absence under the Family Medical Leave Act in May 2010. When he was unable to return to work at the end of his leave in July 2010, he was terminated from his position.

'Chatel had done nothing wrong,' Campbell said. 'So they created this situation and then used the situation they created to run him out of a job and out of law enforcement.'

(Laura McCrystal can be reached at 369-3312 or or on Twitter @lmccrystal.)


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