No Defamation Lawsuit For Statements Made In Disciplinary Investigation

Michael Fiore was a probationary police officer for the Town of Whitestown, New York. The employee of a tanning salon appeared at a meeting of the Whitestown Police Commission and told the Commissioners that while Fiore was off duty he visited the tanning salon and displayed a handgun. The tanning salon employee also told the Commissioners that before Fiore began working for the Department, the owner of the tanning salon saw Fiore masturbating in a tanning booth.

After hearing from the tanning salon employee, the Police Commission terminated Fiore’s employment. Fiore then sued the Town, claiming (among other things) that various members of the Commission and the Department had made defamatory statements against him in the process of investigating the complaint against him. A state court rejected the lawsuit.

The Court held that “there is complete immunity from liability for defamation for an official who is a principal executive of State or local government who is entrusted by law with administrative or executive policy-making responsibilities of considerable dimension with respect to statements made during the discharge of those responsibilities about matters which come within the ambit of those duties. Here, the Town Board has the statutory authority to ‘make, adopt and enforce rules, orders and regulations for the government, discipline, administration and disposition of the police department and of the members thereof.’

“Members of the Police Commission were delegated all the powers relative to police matters conferred upon the Town Board. We therefore conclude that they were entitled to absolute immunity because members of the Town Board enjoy an absolute privilege against a claim of defamation where the defamatory statements are made in the discharge of their responsibilities about matters within the ambit of their duties and the privilege of absolute immunity extends to those of subordinate rank who exercise delegated powers.”

Fiore also argued that there was no just cause for his termination. But, ruled the Court, “as a probationary police officer, Fiore could be dismissed for almost any reason, or for no reason at all and he had no right to challenge the termination by way of a hearing or otherwise, absent a showing that he was dismissed in bad faith or for an improper or impermissible reason.”

Fiore v. Town of Whitestown, 2015 WL 600761 (N.Y. A.D. 2015).