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Sargent v. Town of Hudson

United States District Court, D. New Hampshire

September 27, 2017

Janelle Sargent
Town of Hudson, et al. Opinion No. 2017 DNH 210

          Charles G. Douglas, III, Esq.

          Megan E. Douglass, Esq.

          John A. Curran, Esq.



         Janelle Sargent alleges that her former employer, the Town of Hudson Police Department (“HPD”), treated her reports of domestic violence differently than those made by other women solely because her abuser was a police officer in a neighboring town. She initially brought this action in state court, alleging two counts: (1) a state-law gross negligence claim brought against the Town of Hudson (“Town”) and three HPD officers[1] under New Hampshire Revised Statutes Annotated (“RSA”) § 173-B:12 (Count I); and (2) a federal claim alleging an equal-protection violation on a “class-of-one” theory, brought against the three officers (the “individual defendants”) under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (Count II). Defendants removed the action to this court on the basis of the federal claim, and the parties consented to the jurisdiction of the undersigned magistrate judge.

         Defendants move for summary judgment on both counts. Doc. no. 17. Plaintiff opposes summary judgment (doc. no. 33), but also asks that this court certify two questions to the New Hampshire Supreme Court with respect to her state-law claim (doc. no. 24). Defendants object to certification (doc. no. 25) and move to strike certain exhibits attached to plaintiff's objection to summary judgment (doc. no. 38).

         For the reasons that follow, the court grants defendants' motion for summary judgment as to the federal claim, finding that the individual defendants are entitled to qualified immunity. The court declines supplemental jurisdiction over the state claim and remands the case to the superior court, concluding that it is the appropriate forum to resolve this claim in the first instance. The court therefore denies plaintiff's motion to certify. In light of these determinations, the court denies as moot the motion to strike.


         Summary judgment is appropriate where the moving party “shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). “If a nonmovant bears the ultimate burden of proof on a given issue, she must present ‘definite, competent evidence' sufficient to establish the elements of her claim in order to survive a motion for summary judgment.” Pina v. Children's Place, 740 F.3d 785, 795-96 (1st Cir. 2014) (quoting Mesnick v. Gen. Elec. Co., 950 F.2d 816, 822 (1st Cir. 1991)). The court must “draw all reasonable inferences from the record in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, disregarding any ‘conclusory allegations, improbable inferences, or unsupported speculation.'” McGrath v. Tavares, 757 F.3d 20, 25 (1st Cir. 2014) (quoting Alicea v. Machete Music, 744 F.3d 773, 778 (1st Cir. 2014)). Where, as here, the moving party raises a qualified immunity defense, the nonmoving party has the burden of showing that qualified immunity does not apply. See Mitchell v. Miller, 790 F.3d 73, 77 (1st Cir. 2015) (second prong); cf. Lopera v. Town Of Coventry, 640 F.3d 388, 395-96 (1st Cir. 2011) (first prong); Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, 563 U.S. 731, 735 (2011).


         Unless otherwise noted, the following facts are undisputed in the record. Janelle Sargent began working for the HPD as a fulltime dispatcher in July 2005. Doc. no. 33-3 ¶ 4. Janelle married her ex-husband, Benjamin Sargent, [2] two months later. Id. ¶ 3. Beginning in 2009 or 2010, Janelle was transitioned to the HPD legal department due to a backlog, though she continued to spend time working in dispatch. Doc. no. 17-4 at 2-3; doc. no. 33-7 at 19 (mentioning that Janelle worked in dispatch in 2011). Janelle was a good employee, with HPD Captain William Avery describing her as “probably the best dispatcher [he] ever worked with.” Doc. no. 17-4 at 2-3.

         In 2011, Ben was hired by the Litchfield Police Department (“LPD”). Doc. no. 33-3 ¶ 5. The individual defendants all knew that Ben worked for the LPD during the period relevant to this case. See doc. no. 33-4 at 8; doc. no. 33-5 at 23; doc. no. 33-12 at 16. It does not, however, appear that any individual defendant interacted with Ben more than in passing during this timeframe. See doc. no. 33-4 at 8; doc. no. 33-5 at 23.

         A. Early Instances of Domestic Violence

         At some point in 2011, Janelle told HPD Officer Kevin Sullivan that Ben had pointed a gun at her head while she was taking a shower. Doc. no. 33-7 at 19-20. Janelle did not ask Sullivan to initiate a criminal complaint or investigation because she was scared for her life. Id. at 21. There is no evidence in the record suggesting that Janelle or Sullivan ever formally reported or otherwise mentioned this incident to anyone else at the HPD.

         In early April 2012, Ben assaulted Janelle, causing bruising to her temple and her neck. Id. at 15. The following day, Janelle went to work with her hair up and without wearing makeup, hoping that one of her colleagues would notice the bruising. Id. When no one did, Janelle sought out HPD Officer Dan Conley, who took photographs of Janelle's bruising on a department camera. Id. at 15, 21, 33; doc. no. 33-8 at 5. Janelle stated that she was going to send the photographs to her attorney. Doc. no. 33-8 at 5. Though she secretly hoped that Conley would disclose this interaction to a superior officer, Janelle asked that Conley keep it a secret because she believed doing so would provide an excuse if it ever got back to Ben that she had spoken with Conley. Doc. no. 33-7 at 21, 34; doc. no. 33-8 at 6. Conley agreed not to mention it to anyone so long as Janelle told her attorney about the incident. Doc. no. 33-8 at 5.

         After Janelle left his office, Conley started to worry that something bad might happen to Janelle and how he “would have that on [him]” if he did not tell anyone. Id. Conley therefore told Avery about his interaction with Janelle and about the photographs he had taken. Id. at 5-6. Avery responded, “[W]e're dealing with stuff with Janelle, she's got some personal issues we're working through, ” and thanked Conley for the information. Id. at 6. Avery did not ask to see the photographs or prepare a report for the file regarding what Conley had said. Id.; doc. no. 33-4 at 5. Neither Avery nor Conley informed anyone else at the HPD about Conley's conversation with Sargent. Id. at 6.

         B. June 2012 Incident

         Shortly before 1:00 A.M. on June 30, 2012, Janelle called HPD dispatch and reported that Ben had scratched her neck with a key. Doc. no. 33-5 at 16; doc. no. 33-7 at 14; 33-6 at 1; 33-19 at 1. Lieutenant Charles Dyac and Officer Scott MacDonald responded to the call. Doc. no. 33-5 at 2; 33-19 at 3. Dyac was the first to arrive at the Sargents' residence, followed by MacDonald two-to-three minutes later. Id. at 2.

         There is no dispute that that Dyac spoke with both Janelle and Ben while at the scene. See, e.g., Id. at 2, 4; doc. no. 33-19 at 3. Each provided Dyac with a significantly different version of the events leading up to Janelle's call. Dyac memorialized these different versions, along with his own observations, in both a police report and a subsequent e-mail to several of his HPD supervisors. Doc. no. 33-10; doc. no. 33-19; doc. no. 33-6. Janelle disputes both Ben's version of events and several portions of Dyac's report and e-mail.

         1. Dyac's Report and E-mail

         According to Dyac's police report, when he arrived at the scene, Janelle was “highly intoxicated and unsteady on her feet.” Doc. no. 33-19 at 3. Janelle stated that she and Ben had been at the Backstreet Bar and Grill (“Backstreet”), where she had been “making out” with another woman. Id. She stated that Ben became jealous, and that Ben scratched her on the side of her neck with a key when they left the bar. Id. Janelle stated that when she returned home, she tried to photograph the scratch for a future divorce proceeding, but that Ben disabled the camera. Id. Janelle stated that she then called the police. Id.

         Once MacDonald arrived, Dyac went inside to speak with Ben. Id. Ben told Dyac that Janelle had been kissing another woman at Backstreet, that Janelle and the woman had entered the women's bathroom together for long periods of time, and that when they exited the bathroom, both women bragged about having sexual contact with each other. Id. Ben noted that he did not approve of this behavior and eventually told Janelle that he wanted to leave, but Janelle initially refused. Id. Ben reported that when he and Janelle finally did leave, Janelle said that she was “going to call them, ” which Ben interpreted to mean the HPD. Id. Ben stated that he was confused by this, as there had been no physical altercation. Id.

         According to Dyac, Ben maintained that he did not assault Janelle. Id. at 4. Rather, Ben believed that Janelle received the scratch from the woman she had been kissing, as Janelle and the woman were “groping each other's face[s] . . . .” Id. at 4. Ben told Dyac that Janelle was taking several different medications, pain relievers, and antidepressants, and had been drinking heavily. Id. at 3. Ben stated that he had started hiding certain medications from Janelle when she was intoxicated, so as to avoid an accidental overdose. Id. Dyac reported that Ben ...

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