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Former Selectwoman Suing Adams Over Constitutional Violations

By Tammy Daniels
iBerkshires Staff
03:55AM / Saturday, May 10, 2014
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Former Selectwoman Paula Melville in happier days. She's taken the town to court over the Board of Selectmen's actions against her in 2011.

ADAMS, Mass. — Former Selectwoman Paula Melville has taken the town of Adams and its officers to court over claims of "conspiracy and collusion" to defame her and to deprive her of her constitutional rights.

Her filings state $1 million could be owed to her for damages under state law.

The Board of Selectmen censured her at an emergency meeting on Feb. 28, 2011, for purportedly revealing information about a draft budget in violation of the town's contract with its public labor unions.

The draft had been provided separately to board members for review but had not yet been made public, nor had the town administrator met with the union leaders to apprise them of its contents.

Melville was notified in person two hours before the emergency meeting began and did not attend.

Her statements were disavowed, she was banned from entering certain town properties or interacting with town employees other than in a general nature, and her actions were to be reported to the state Ethics Committee. Melville denied all wrong-doing.
 
Melville, apparently representing herself, filed 21 counts against a host of defendants, including the town, Selectman Arthur "Skip" Harrington, former Selectmen (then Chairman) Michael Ouellette, Scott Nichols and Jason Hnatonko, who all served on the board with her in 2011, and Town Administrator Jonathan Butler.

Judge Michael A. Posner is allowing some of the counts to continue — those specifically dealing with due process and 1st Amendment rights — but has dismissed the majority, including those against the Berkshire County sheriff's office, Council on Aging Director Erica Samson, former Police Chief Donald Poirot and the attorney general's office.

Melville filed her claims in U.S. District Court in Springfield in February of last year, nearly a year after she resigned from the Board of Selectmen two-thirds of the way through her term.  

In her initial filings, she claims her "career as a public servant, which she expected to enjoy the rest of her life, is at a finish. In addition to the affronts, wrongs and injustices described herein, Melville suffers the marring of her parents' good name, as each was a popular educator in the area for many years."

She's asking for compensation for loss of wages or benefits, unspecified compensation for "humiliation and damage to her reputation," coverage of her court and attorney's fees, and punitive damages if applicable.

The documents on file are extensive and include numerous appendixes that appear to include articles written about the incident and previous problems Melville has had with the board. iBerkshires.com is cited a number of times in the filings.  

Melville's two years on the Board of Selectmen were rocky at best, antagonistic at worst. She was repeatedly rebuked for contacting state officials and representing herself as speaking for the board as a whole, endangering projects; she and the town administrator frequently butted heads. Her supporters said she shined a light on town operations and was belittled for asking tough questions.

She resigned shortly after the the 2012 town election with one more year left to serve.

Her complaints focus on several issues: the circumstances leading up to the Feb. 28 emergency meeting; the legality of the meeting and several following ones; the board's actions against her, and peripheral actions she believed "endorsed" or somehow added to the "appearance of official legitimate business" that she claims was not legitimate. That included Samson detailing her conversation with Melville in a letter to the Board of Selectmen and the sheriff's deputy who delivered her the notice of the emergency meeting.

Melville's complaint says she was "deprived of her right to represent the town of Adams as a selectperson due to the Adams' Selectmen's silencing her without due process of law."

Court Filings complaint & responses
Initial Complaint by Melville
Notice of Claims by Melville
Recommendations by Neiman
Opinion by Posner

Attorney Jeffrey J. Trapani of Robinson Donovan PC of Springfield, representing the town and its officers, and other defendants' attorneys requested dismissal of all charges.

Magistrate Judge Kenneth P. Neiman recommended dismissing counts against anyone except the town, Board of Selectmen and Butler. Of those counts, only those specific parts dealing with due process and free speech were recommended to move forward.

Melville had, for example, attempted to use "whistleblower" protection, which the court rejected. The court also dismissed allegations of open meeting violations, noting those judgements belong to the state, a claim the Feb. 28 meeting was in retaliation for her comments at a Forest Warden meeting earlier that day and that there was malice on the part of her colleagues.

Rather, Neiman looked broadly at the prohibitions placed on Melville in speaking to town employees and short notice of the emergency meeting that may have infringed upon Melville's rights to obtain counsel.

"Construing the allegations of the complaint generously, Judge Neiman concluded that, given the arguably excessive breadth of the orders, Plaintiff had articulated a cognizable free speech even if she were treated as a mere public employee. ...

"After determining that the First Amendment protected the plaintiff to some extent, the magistrate judge concluded that defendants plausibly violated those rights." (underlined in opinion)

Neiman specified four counts of possible violations of due process: failure to provide sufficient notice of the meeting, that the two hours did not give her time to obtain counsel, that she was not informed of her rights before the hearing and that the board failed to apprise her of what was "inappropriate behavior."

The board could, he noted, have disavowed her remarks and scheduled a later meeting to address behavior.

The town has raised the issue of qualified immunity, which protects non-federal government officials from liability for violating constitutional rights, in that the Neiman's take was overbroad in determining her right to be heard "at a meaningful time and in a meaningful way."

Posner said this could be possible, that "defendants may be able to establish that their actions were reasonable under the circumstances and that the process provided was adequate."

"The key question is whether a reasonable official could have believed his or her actions were lawful in light of clearly established law and the information known at the time regarding the allegedly unconstitutional conduct."

He accepted Neiman's recommendations to move forward on the specified complaints, stating that the court at summary judgement "will have a record to assist it in determining the employer's interests and the reasonableness of Defendant's conduct."

A conference has been scheduled for June 12.

Butler at Tuesday's Selectmen's meeting said the town was covered by liability insurance and has a $7,500 deductible.


Tags: civil rights,   lawsuit,   Melville,   US Court,   

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