Officers Not Sufficiently Identified In Critical Report To Bring Defamation Lawsuit

The Town of Wallkill, New York, maintains a Police Commission of four volunteer individuals to supervise its Police Department. In July 2000, the Commission published an investigative report critical of the Town’s Police Department and especially its Chief. The report named no names or linked any officer to misconduct except the Chief of Police, who was not a party to this action.

The Town’s counsel advised against release of the report, but it was given to the local paper and other media. A group of 23 Wallkill officers sued the Town for the constitutional equivalent of defamation of character (a claim based on the due process clause, known as “stigma plus”). The officers claimed that the “vast preponderance” of the allegations in the report were false. Two officers, already on probation at the time the report was released, were terminated, and the report allegedly caused the resignation of another officer. The Town allegedly sought to “terminate or discipline” another seven officers. The officers claimed that the report “besmirched and sullied their names, caused them humiliation, disrespect, and emotional harm, and caused other police departments to fear hiring Wallkill officers, resulting in denial of transfers.”

A federal appeals court dismissed the lawsuit, concluding that since the report did not name any particular officers’ names, those bringing the lawsuit could not have been defamed. Though the Court acknowledged that under some circumstances, “group defamation” could occur, it found that the Wallkill case was not such a case: “Regardless of how rigorous or lenient the standards might be for permitting a member of a group to complain about defamatory statements directed at the group, the complaint in this case is plainly deficient. The report not only made no defamatory statements about the entire Wallkill Police Department or even most of the police officers, it explicitly made the favorable finding that “most rank-and-file police officers are dedicated to their work and to serving the citizens of Wallkill.”

“Although the Commission made recommendations to the Police Chief for disciplinary actions against some unnamed officers,” the report carefully explained, “the details of these actions will not be publicly discussed in this report in respect to the privacy interests of the police officers involved.” The report made one reference to illegal conduct, a private employer making cash payments to a few officers for off-duty security work, but the report did not link this conduct to any particular officer. The report singles out for most of its fire the Police Chief, who is not a plaintiff in this lawsuit. In sum, the report is a conscientious effort by citizen-commissioners to identify and remedy serious administrative deficiencies in the Wallkill Police Department, and it does not provide a sufficient basis for a stigma plus claim by any of the plaintiffs.”

Algarin v. Town of Wallkill, 2005 WL 2082794 (2nd Cir. 2005).

This article appears in the October 2005 issue