Deputy Loses $500,000 Verdict, Wins Retrial

Jay MacKenzie was a deputy sheriff for Rockingham County, New Hampshire. While off duty on the evening of April 23, 2004, MacKenzie went to a bar with a fellow deputy, Christopher Stone. MacKenzie and Stone left the bar and, while in the parking lot, Stone stopped to urinate.

A man, later identified as Anthony Kobelanz, approached the two deputies demanding to use a cell phone. Kobelanz’s face was bloody, he was not wearing a shirt, and he appeared mentally unstable. Kobelanz carried a bag, which MacKenzie and Stone feared might contain a gun.

MacKenzie identified himself as a deputy sheriff and asked Kobelanz for identification. Kobelanz became agitated and tackled MacKenzie to the ground. Stone pulled Kobelanz off MacKenzie, and Kobelanz left the area without his bag. As he left, he took photographs of both deputies. MacKenzie and Stone put the bag in some bushes so that Kobelanz could retrieve it and left the scene without contacting the police.

The next day, Kobelanz went to the local police department, showed officers the photographs of MacKenzie and Stone, and contended that they had assaulted him. The matter eventually turned into a Sheriff’s Department internal affairs investigation, which culminated in the County firing MacKenzie. The rules cited by the County required department members to conduct themselves “in a manner that will reflect credit on themselves and the Sheriff’s Department.”

The Sheriff fired MacKenzie in a face-to-face meeting. After the Sheriff fired MacKenzie, he blocked the door for 30 seconds and did not allow MacKenzie to leave the room so that he could provide him with further instructions.

MacKenzie sued the County for wrongful discharge and false imprisonment. A jury found in MacKenzie’s favor and awarded him $500,000 in damages. The trial court granted the County’s motion to set aside the jury verdict, and MacKenzie appealed to the New Hampshire Supreme Court.

The Court found that only one of MacKenzie’s two claims – the “false imprisonment” claim – was potentially valid. As to the wrongful discharge claim, the Court cited the fact that MacKenzie admitted that he should not have left the scene without calling the police about the incident. The Court held that “to the extent that a rational fact finder could have reasonably found that MacKenzie was fired because he disagreed with the Sheriff about whether his conduct violated the personal conduct rules of the Department, this disagreement was not an act that public policy would protect. Public policy does not protect an employee’s expression of disagreement with a management decision.”

MacKenzie fared better with his “false imprisonment” claim. Under the law, false imprisonment occurs whenever an individual’s personal freedom is unlawfully retained. Any period of unlawful confinement, however brief, can result in liability for false imprisonment.

The Court found that MacKenzie’s evidence that the Sheriff blocked him from leaving the room when he was fired established the necessary elements for a false imprisonment claim. The Court concluded that “a rational juror reasonably could have found that the Sheriff intended to confine MacKenzie in the room, that his act of standing in front of the door with his hand on the knob resulted in MacKenzie’s confinement to the room and that MacKenzie was conscious of being confined. A rational juror could also have found that the Sheriff acted without legal authority.”

The problem, as the Court saw, was that the jury’s $500,000 verdict was not broken down into damages for the wrongful discharge claim (which was not valid) and the false imprisonment claim (which was valid). Under the circumstances, the Court concluded, “when we are in doubt as to whether the jury would have found as it did that the error had not been committed, the case should be reversed. Here, because we cannot tell whether the jury would have found the County liable on the false imprisonment claim and/or award $500,000 for that claim alone, we reverse and remand for a new trial on that claim.”

MacKenzie v. Linehan, 2009 WL 883190 (N.H. 2009).

This article appears in the June 2009 issue