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Thatcher v. Department of Environmental Management

Superior Court of Rhode Island

August 14, 2014

DAVID N. THATCHER, SR.
v.
DEPARTMENT OF ENVIRONMENTAL MANAGEMENT, KURT SHATZ, [1] PERSONALLY AND IN HIS CAPACITY AS CHIEF OF THE OFFICE OF CRIMINAL INVESTIGATION, MATTHEW PATTERSON AND PATRICIA PATTERSON

Providence County Superior Court

For Plaintiff: Sonja L. Deyoe, Esq.

For Defendant: Sue Ellen Dunn, Esq.; Thomas A. Palombo, Esq.; Bruce E. Vealey, Esq.

DECISION

MCGUIRL, J.

Before this Court is Department of Environmental Management (DEM) and Kurt Schatz, personally and in his capacity as Chief of the Office of Criminal Investigation's (Chief Schatz) (collectively Defendants) motion for summary judgment. Defendants seek summary judgment on Count I, David N. Thatcher, Sr.'s (Plaintiff) slander complaint. Jurisdiction is pursuant to Super. R. Civ. P. 56. For the reasons set forth below, this Court denies the motion for summary judgment on Count I.

I

Facts and Travel[2]

Plaintiff worked as a criminal investigator at the Office of Criminal Investigation (OCI) at DEM from 1991 until his retirement in 2011. (Def.'s Ex. B in PC 06-3480, Thatcher Dep., 14:24-15:13, 19:15-21.) On May 1, 2006, Plaintiff informed Chief Schatz of possible ethics violations stemming from a personal relationship Chief Schatz had had with Darlene Bunning-Chapdelaine (Ms. Chapdelaine). (Def.'s Ex. F in PC 06-3480, Pl.'s Answers to Interrogs. #8.) Ms. Chapdelaine worked as a consultant for Patriot Companies and coordinated its efforts to apply to DEM for a permit to operate a new facility that would recycle construction and demolition debris. (Def.'s Ex. B in PC 06-3480, Thatcher Dep., 48:1-10.) Ms. Chapdelaine also helped the Patriot Companies resolve administrative enforcement actions for violations of environmental regulations issued by DEM. Id. In addition to this alleged relationship, Plaintiff was also concerned about perceived relationships between the principals of the Patriot Companies and Matthew Patterson (Deputy Chief Patterson), the deputy chief of OCI, given the rumors that he intended to begin working for the Patriot Companies. (Pl.'s Ex. W in PC 06-3480, Thatcher Aff.)

On May 2, 2006, Chief Schatz requested that Plaintiff prepare a memorandum detailing his allegations. According to the memorandum written by Plaintiff, Principal Environmental Scientist James Ashton (Mr. Ashton), from DEM's Office of Compliance and Inspection Solid Waste Section, informed Plaintiff on April 26, 2006 of a telephone call he had received from Deputy Chief Patterson. (Defs.' Ex. B, Pl.'s Mem. to Chief Schatz at 1.) Allegedly, Deputy Chief Patterson had inquired into why DEM had conducted an inspection at a Patriot Companies facility in Johnston. Plaintiff stated in the memorandum that "Mr. Ashton gave [Plaintiff] the impression that this telephone call from retired Deputy Chief Patterson was inappropriate" because of rumors that Deputy Chief Patterson would soon be employed by Patriot Disposal. Id. at 2. Soon after the alleged phone call, Deputy Chief Patterson began working for the Patriot Hauling Company on June 12, 2006. The memorandum stated that "there was a shared sense of uneasiness that existed within this office regarding the 'perceived' relationship that may exist between the principals of the Patriot Companies and retired Deputy Chief Patterson." Id. at 3.

This memorandum also expressed concerns about an alleged relationship between Ms. Chapdelaine and Chief Schatz. Id. at 4. The memorandum mentioned "allegations of regularity of contact that existed between [Chief Schatz and Ms. Chapdelaine], i.e., telephone calls, exchange of emails, visits to the OCI . . . speculation of afternoon trips to meet with Ms. [Chapdelaine], appearance of an article (2005) in a major waste industry magazine that gave the appearance of your support of the Patriot companies . . . " Id.

On May 5, 2006, Chief Schatz wrote a memorandum to DEM Director Michael Sullivan (Director Sullivan) explaining his concern regarding Plaintiff's continued employment as a criminal investigator. (Pl.'s Ex. S in PC 06-3480, Mem. from Chief Schatz to Director Sullivan.) Chief Schatz stated that, to his knowledge, Deputy Chief Patterson had always acted with "utmost professionalism" and that no evidence had been found to support Plaintiff's allegations. According to this memorandum, the sources that Plaintiff relied on in his memorandum denied knowledge of unethical or suspicious behavior. Chief Schatz also wrote: "I do not pretend to be a psychiatrist, but based on my experience and his behavior in the last few days, I have a responsibility to advise you that I believe that [Plaintiff] is making very poor decisions and using poor judgment in the performances of his duties." Id. As a result, Chief Schatz recommended that Plaintiff be temporarily removed from his position.

Following this recommendation, DEM notified Plaintiff that he would be required to undergo a mandatory fitness for return to duty evaluation in order to return to work. (Pl.'s Ex. I in PC 05-3480, Letter from DEM Human Resources to Plaintiff, May 19, 2006.) On June 29, 2006, Plaintiff filed a Complaint against DEM and W. Michael Sullivan, in his capacity as Director, alleging violations of the Rhode Island Whistleblower Act (Count I) and the Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights (Count II). Subsequently, on August 1, 2006, Plaintiff was evaluated by a doctor who found him fit for duty, and Plaintiff returned to work on August 21, 2006. (Pl.'s Ex. K in PC 06-3480, Letters from Life Watch Employee Assistance Program to DEM and Psychological Fitness For Duty Evaluation.)

On May 1, 2007, Plaintiff filed the Complaint in the instant case against DEM, Chief Schatz, Deputy Chief Patterson and Patricia Patterson (Sheriff Patterson) alleging slander (Count I). Specifically, Plaintiff claimed that Chief Schatz disseminated information that Plaintiff was mentally imbalanced, and that Deputy Chief Patterson and his wife, Sheriff Patterson, made false accusations that Plaintiff allegedly threatened them in revenge for his coming forward with his concerns about Chief Schatz and Deputy Chief Patterson's possible unethical activities on the job.

On January 21, 2010, the instant case was consolidated with PC-06-3480 for discovery purposes only. DEM and Chief Schatz then filed a motion for summary ...


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