State Police Major Loses Defamation Lawsuit Against Police Union

John Burns was a major in the Massachusetts State Police. In 1995, Burns approached Trooper Kathleen Barrett to question her about court overtime and whether she was properly subpoenaed. Barrett called Dean Bennett, the vice-president of the State Police Association of Massachusetts, asked about the policy, and complained about the manner in which Burns had conducted his inspection. Barrett told Bennett that she felt humiliated.

Subsequently, Bennett was at a labor/management meeting in his capacity as vice-president of the Association and grievance chairman. Bennett spoke about problems with the court overtime policy and a concern regarding a trooper who complained, and whether the trooper had been unfairly singled out.

Burns contended that Bennett accused him of sexual harassment of Barrett. The sole evidence Burns submitted was his own testimony that Valian Norris, the director of human resources for the State Police, told Burns that Bennett had accused him of sexual harassment. Norris remembered nothing about Bennett alleging sexual harassment.

When Burns’ lawsuit was dismissed, he filed an appeal with the Appeals Court of Massachusetts. Burns argued that his evidence proved that Bennett’s statement at the labor/management meeting accusing him of sexual harassment of Barrett was defamatory and made with malice.

The Court upheld the dismissal of Burns’ lawsuit. As the Court put it, “the problem with Burns’ case is that there is no evidence that Bennett accused him of sexual harassment. The most the evidence shows is that Bennett reported Barrett’s dissatisfaction with the way in which Burns conducted his inspection of her court overtime and her belief that she had been unfairly treated. A simple expression of opinion is not itself sufficient for an action of defamation. Furthermore, as vice-president of the Association and grievance chairman, Bennett was protected by a qualified privilege in raising the concerns of an Association member about her treatment by Burns. The record is devoid of any evidence that would cause the privilege to be lost.”

Burns v. State Police Association of Massachusetts, 66 Mass.App.Ct. 1105 (2006).

This article appears in the December 2006 issue