In a 20 page ruling issued by Justice Richard Licht regarding the case of former Councilwoman Eileen Fuoco against Mayor Joseph Polisena, the court entirely disposed of the claims and judgment against the mayor.
The court found through the ruling, which overturned a jury’s decision, that Councilwoman Fuoco’s party had insufficient evidence to reasonably support its case. Mayor Polisena had filed a motion with the court seeking judgment as a matter of law, which sought to have the suit dismissed.
As an alternative, though not needed due to the above ruling, the court would have also granted Polisena’s motions for a new trial on all issues, as well as a motion for a remittitur, an order awarding a lesser amount of damages than that granted by the jury.
The case goes back to October 2013, when Councilwoman Fuoco filed a complaint in Superior Court against Polisena. According to the ruling documents, the entire case revolved around the October 15, 2013 Town Council meeting. At the meeting, a member of the public questioned why certain roads in District One, Councilwoman Fuoco’s district, had not been repaved.
That inquiry led to Fuoco and Polisena both taking over the meeting, who then engaged in a “spirited and heated interaction,” during which time Mayor Polisena reportedly made six accusatory statements about Councilwoman Fuoco, according to court documents.
Fuoco alleged that during that meeting Polisena said she had attempted to claim temporary disability insurance from the town, attempted to collect unemployment compensation from the town, was not properly fulfilling her duties to the Council, missed many council meetings while she was in Florida in the winter, tried to put herself on the town’s healthcare plan, and was only concerned about getting her own street paved in her district.
To provide context to the fateful Council Meeting, Justice Licht summarized relevant evidence from the case. He wrote that Fuoco ran for Town Council in 2010, and unseated an incumbent who was supported by the mayor. On May 4, 2011, the town’s payroll clerk received a letter from the Temporary Disability Insurance (TDI) Division of the State Department of Labor and Training referencing Fuoco’s claim for coverage.
As the town does not participate in TDI, the payroll clerk brought the letter to the attention of the mayor. The mayor testified in court that he redacted the social security number on the document and locked the copy of the letter in the top drawer of his desk.
In 2012, Licht wrote, Polisena supported Fuoco for reelection; however by 2013 their relationship soured, apparently over the town’s road repaving program. Justice Licht continued, stating that the town was not repaving the streets Fuoco wanted done in her district. Polisena, at the meeting and in his testimony, claimed he called Fuoco several times to obtain her priority list of five streets in her district that she wanted paved. The mayor claimed he never received a list, while Fuoco claimed that she had submitted one.
At the October 15, 2013 Council meeting, after a resident brought up the paving issue, Polisena engaged Fuoco and the pair repeatedly interrupted each other. Justice Licht wrote that the gist of Polisena’s contentions were that Fuoco had a problem with Polisena’s administration, was not effectively representing her district, and that she had tried to “rip off” the town. Councilwoman Fuoco vigorously disputed those contentions. The TDI letter, which Fuoco contends was an invasion of privacy as it contained confidential information, was also brought before the council during the altercation.
One week after the contentious meeting, Fuoco filed a lawsuit alleging three counts against the mayor; deprivation of right to privacy, slander and libel, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
In 2014, Fuoco went on to lose her bid for reelection.
When the case went to trial in June, 2018, the court granted Polisena’s motion for judgment as a matter of law-or a motion made during a trial claiming that the opposing party has insufficient evidence to reasonably support its case-on the deprivation of privacy charge prior to submitting the case to the jury.
The jury then rendered a decision in favor of Polisena on the question of intentional infliction of emotional distress, but ruled in favor of Fuoco on the defamation count. The jury decided that Polisena was responsible for $20,000 in damages to Fuoco, along with two years worth of a council member’s salary, totaling $14,000, for a combined total of $34,000.
Motion judgment as a matter of law
Following the jury’s decision, the trial court reviewed the jury’s verdict to determine whether or not the decision should stand. Polisena, after the decision, renewed his motion for judgment as a matter of law, and in the alternative, moved for a new trial. He also made a motion for a remittitur- a new trial and/or the lowering of the amount of damages granted by the jury.
In his summation of his findings, Justice Licht reviewed the six accusatory statements about Councilwoman Fuoco made by Mayor Polisena and outlined above.
Licht found that, in the claims against Polisena regarding TDI, there was no evidentiary basis for finding that the statements made by the mayor during the meeting were false. With respect to unemployment insurance, Licht found that there was no reckless disregard in the comments made by the mayor.
During the trial, Licht found that Fuoco had failed to prove that Polisena’s statements about her being “missing in action” for several council meetings as false. As far as Fuoco being interested only in getting her own road paved, Licht wrote that Fuoco admitted that was the case and therefore the comments made by the mayor were not false.
In seeking health insurance from the town, Licht wrote that Polisena’s statement that Fuoco was angry about a denial of insurance was not defamatory. He also found that Polisena’s opinion about Fuoco’s performance on the council was based upon non-defamatory facts and was protected by the First Amendment.
Licht wrote that the evidence presented in trial lead to the conclusion that Polisena intended to confront Fuoco at the meeting on her performance as a Councilwoman. He brought the TDI letter, which had been locked in a desk drawer for two and a half years, and was prepared to use it in his argument against Fuoco.
“The Meeting was more than robust, some might say it was raucous, and some might contend that Mayor Polisena’s conduct lacked the civility one would hope to see at a public meeting. However, politics is not played by the Marquis of Queensbury rules, [a code of fair play governing boxing matches],” wrote Justice Licht in his ruling. “The heart of the American experience is free expression. [Fuoco’s] position, and indeed this case in its entirety, evinces a concerning lack of veneration for the First Amendment. A Court cannot tell an elected official, a candidate for office, or a member of the public that he or she cannot be rude, insulting, or boorish.”
Licht also wrote that Polisena’s First Amendment rights superseded any hurt feelings his expressions and opinions may cause.
New trial and remittitur
In his ruling, Justice Licht wrote that the court believes its ruling of Polisena’s motion for judgment as a matter of law is dispositive- or entirely disposes the claims without need for further trial court proceedings. The judge did, however, also consider Polisena’s remaining motions for a new trial and remittitur as well.
Licht wrote that the verdict the jury reached “demonstrates a lack of understanding on the part of the jury as to the instructions this court provided prior to deliberations.”
“While there is no question that the Mayor hoped to undermine Councilwoman Fuoco’s standing with her constituents, no evidence whatsoever was offered at trial as to Mayor Polisena’s subjective knowledge of the falsity of his statements,” wrote Licht. “The trial evidence was also wholly inadequate to support finding by clear and convincing evidence that Mayor Polisena acted with reckless disregard for the truth of his statements.”
The judge also stated that evidence demonstrated Polisena’s statements during the October 2013 meeting were accurate in whole or in part, and the accuracy of those statements was not rebutted during trial.
He also wrote that the method of the calculation of the settlement reached by the jury was “far too speculative to be sustained,” and that the awarded amount demonstrates that “the jury proceeded from a clearly erroneous basis in assessing the fair amount of compensation.”
If the case had not been resolved with the court’s ruling disposing of the claims, the court would have also granted a new trial and/or a reduction in damages trough a new trial.