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Shatney v. LaPorte

United States District Court, D. Vermont

November 7, 2014

JOSEPH LAPORTE, in his official capacity as Chief of Police of the Hardwick Police Department, and TANNER ATWOOD and WILLIAM FIELD, officers of the Hardwick Police Department, and the TOWN OF HARDWICK, Defendants

For Ray Shatney, Individually and jointly as owner of other Greenfield Highland Beef, LLC, other Shat Acres Highland Cattle, LLC, other Shatney Tree Service, LLC, Greenfield Highland Beef, LLC, Shat Acres Highland Cattle, LLC, Janet Steward, Individually and jointly as owner of other Greenfield Highland Beef, LLC, other Shat Acres Highland Cattle, LLC, other Shatney Tree Service, LLC, Shatney Tree Service, LLC, Plaintiffs: Herbert G. Ogden, Esq., Ogden Law Offices, P.C., Danby, VT; Timothy B. Yarrow, Esq., Hyde Park, VT.

Joseph LaPorte, In His Official Capacity as Chief of Police of the Hardwick Police Department, Defendant, Pro se.

For Joseph LaPorte, In His Official Capacity as Chief of Police of the Hardwick Police Department: James F. Carroll, Esq., English, Carroll & Boe, P.C., Middlebury, VT.

For Tanner Atwood, In his Individual Capacity as an Officer of the Hardwick Police Department, William Field, In his Individual capacity as an Officer of the Hardwick Police Department, Defendants: Kevin J. Coyle, Esq., Nancy G. Sheahan, Esq., McNeil, Leddy & Sheahan, P.C., Burlington, VT.

For Hardwick, Town of, Defendant: Nancy G. Sheahan, Esq., McNeil, Leddy & Sheahan, P.C., Burlington, VT.


Geoffrey W. Crawford, United States District Judge.

This case originates in a bitter dispute among siblings over the inheritance of a family farm. Over time it has developed into a civil rights action against the Town of Hardwick, its chief of police Joseph LaPorte, and two town police officers, Tanner Atwood and William Field. Plaintiffs' principal claim is that the officers dragged their feet in investigating complaints of criminal behavior Ray Shatney made against his relatives while charging him with assaulting his niece. In their second amended complaint, plaintiffs assert claims of negligence, malicious prosecution, defamation, fraud, interference with business relations, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and violation of their rights to equal protection. (Doc. 70.) Defendants now move for summary judgment on all of plaintiffs' claims. (Docs. 136, 137.)

In addition, plaintiffs have filed a motion to modify the stipulated revised discovery schedule/order dated June 19, 2013, in an effort to revisit a prior decision by this court denying plaintiffs permission to amend the complaint for a third time to add a claim of violation of their First Amendment rights. (Doc. 185.) This decision addresses the undisputed facts first, then the motion to modify, and finally the motions for summary judgment.

I. Factual Background

The parties have filed detailed statements of facts, both disputed and not. (Docs. 138, 165 and 174.) Unless otherwise noted, the court has relied upon assertions in defendants' joint statement of undisputed material facts that have been admitted by plaintiffs either in their complaint or in their statement of disputed facts. The court has also considered plaintiffs' statement of material facts when it differs in some material fashion from defendants' statement. Working from these statements, the undisputed facts are as follows.

Ray Shatney is a resident of Greensboro, Vermont, although he has been living with his fiancee Janet Steward in Plainfield, Vermont since 2008. Ray[1] operates a tree-trimming company, Shatney Tree Service, LLC. He and Janet also raise beef cattle through two limited liability corporations, Greenfield Highland Beef, LLC and Shat Acres Highland Cattle, LLC. (Doc. 138 ¶ ¶ l-6.)

Greensboro does not have a police force of its own. Instead, it contracts with the nearby town of Hardwick for service through the seven-officer Hardwick Police Department (HPD). Defendant Joseph LaPorte was the police chief at all times relevant to this case. Defendants Tanner Atwood and William Field served as police officers at various times with the HPD. (Id. ¶ ¶ 10-13.)

A. The Shatney Family Dispute

Ray Shatney and his four brothers, including Leo and Steve Shatney, are the children of Carroll and Leona Shatney. (Id. ¶ 17.) Both Carroll and Leona Shatney are deceased. (Id.) Before their deaths, a dispute arose among Ray, Leo, and Steve over the handling of their parents' assets and the disposition of the family farm. (Id. ¶ 22.) In 2005, prior to his parents' deaths, Ray's name was added to the deed on Carroll and Leona's farm in exchange for his agreement to make payments on his parents' mortgage and other debts. (Doc. 70 ¶ 22.) These events gave rise to a long-standing grievance between Ray and other members of his family including his brothers Leo, Steven, and Arthur and his niece Sandy Thompson. (Doc. 70 ¶ 20; Doc. 138 ¶ 22.)

The family dispute intensified after Leona Shatney died in March 2008. (Doc. 70 ¶ 31.) She was survived by her husband Carroll, who remained in residence on the farm. In April 2008 Ray complained to the HPD that Steve had taken property from the family home now owned by Carroll and Ray. (Doc. 138 ¶ 34; Doc. 174 at 3.) Ray provided the police with a copy of the warranty deed to demonstrate his joint ownership of the property with his father. He complained that Steve had removed guns, a toolbox and a desk from the farm. (Doc. 138 ¶ 35.) Plaintiffs allege that this theft was never properly investigated by HPD. (Doc. 174 ¶ ¶ 272-78.)

In April 2008, Ray obtained " no trespass" orders against Steve and Leo from HPD and a relief-from-abuse order from the Orleans County Family Court. (Id. ¶ 269.) Shortly after obtaining the relief-from-abuse order, Ray complained to former HPD Chief James Dziobek that Leo had violated the order.[2] Ray alleges that although Chief Dziobek prepared a probable cause affidavit in support of a potential criminal charge, he did not forward the matter to the state's attorney for prosecution. (Id. ¶ 270.)

In April 2008, Ray also filed a petition in Orleans County Probate Court seeking the appointment of a guardian for his father. (Doc. 138 ¶ 36.) He accused Steve and Leo of harassing their father and of trying to persuade their father to sign over the farm to them. (Id. ¶ 37.) The inventory of personal property filed in the guardianship proceeding included the guns, toolbox and the desk. (Pl's Ex. 14.) Leo and Steve filed an objection to the inventory. (Doc. 138 ¶ 44.)

In July 2008, Terrie Rich, daughter of Leo and granddaughter of Carroll, removed Carroll from the farm and arranged for his care at her home. (Doc. 138 ¶ 41.) In the same month, the Orleans Probate Court appointed Leo as financial guardian for Carroll and Keven Rich, Terrie's husband, as limited personal guardian. (Id. ¶ 52.) Six months later Carroll moved to a nursing home. (Id. ¶ 135.) In March 2009, the probate court issued a stipulated order providing that Carroll would continue to live in a nursing home and that the Office of Public Guardian would replace Keven Rich as interim personal guardian. (Id. ¶ ¶ 145-46.)

Carroll died in November 2009. The parties stipulated at oral argument that upon his death, Ray became sole owner of the farm and personal property by operation of the deed executed by Leona and Carroll in 2005.

B. Contacts Between Ray Shatney and the HPD Unrelated to the Family Dispute

Since 2000 Ray has regularly called the HPD for assistance with complaints not directly related to his brothers and their families.

In 2000 he reported that a person who had obtained a state-court restraining order against him was seeking to make contact. The matter was resolved after an HPD officer contacted the other party and learned that it was her daughter who had called Ray. (Doc. 138 ¶ 24.)

In 2001 he reported that unknown people were driving in one of his fields. (Id. ¶ 25.)

In 2002 he reported that he might face retaliation from two residents whom he had reported were in possession of a stolen chain saw. He was advised to report any future contact with the individuals to the HPD. (Id. ¶ 26.)

In 2003 he reported that an unknown person had cut down a cedar tree on his parents' property. ( Id. . ¶ 27.) In the same year he reported that a person had engaged in illegal dumping on his neighbor's property. At the recommendation of the HPD, Ray contacted the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources. The responsible party cleaned up the property. (Id. ¶ 28.)

In 2005 Ray complained to the HPD that someone had left two deer carcasses in his yard. (Id. ¶ 31.)

In February 2006 Ray complained that one of his employees had forged Ray's name on some of his checks. The HPD investigated. Ray complained that the case was taking too long. Chief Dziobek apologized for the delay. The investigation continued, and in January 2008 the employee pled guilty to forgery in state court. Following the conviction, the court entered a restitution order. (Id. ¶ 32.)

In April 2011, a heifer belonging to a neighbor wandered onto Ray's property. The neighbor slaughtered the beast. The neighbor was cited for unlawful trespass and referred to diversion. (Id. ¶ ¶ 153-54.)

C. Contacts Between Plaintiffs and the HPD for Conduct that Ray Attributed to His Brothers or Other Relations

In April 2008, Janet Steward complained to the HPD that Leo Shatney had made contact with Ray through a third party in violation of a relief-from-abuse order in effect against Leo. HPD officers spoke to Leo and advised him that contact through a third party was a violation of law. The contact stopped. (Id. ¶ 40.)

In September 2008, Ray complained to the HPD that someone had dumped nails on his driveway. He told police that he suspected his brother Leo's son-in-law Keven Rich of the offense. The HPD found insufficient evidence to support a charge. (Id. ¶ ¶ 54-55.) Plaintiffs allege that the HPD failed to interview Keven Rich or conduct a proper investigation. They state that Chief LaPorte admitted that the nail incident had not been handled well by HPD. (Doc. 174 at 5.)

On October 1, 2008, Janet and Ray complained to Chief LaPorte that the HPD had failed to investigate the nail incident appropriately. In their version, LaPorte screamed, " We're going to clear the air right now! Nobody accuses my officers of lying." Ray felt emotionally traumatized by LaPorte's conduct. (Doc. 174 ¶ ¶ 288-92.)

On October 8, 2008, Ray complained to the HPD that someone was stealing his mail and that he suspected Keven Rich and Leo Shatney. (Doc. 138 ¶ 62.) Plaintiffs allege that they told police that a neighbor witnessed the mail theft. (Doc. 174 at 5.) Plaintiff Janet Steward contacted a federal postal inspector, who warned Leo and Keven Rich that tampering with mail was a federal offense. (Doc. 138 ¶ 63-64.) The mail thefts came to an end in October 2008. (Id. ¶ 66; Doc. 174 at 6.)

In July 2009, Ray complained to the Vermont State Police that his cabin in Greensboro Bend had been vandalized. The Vermont State Police referred Ray to the HPD and transferred his call. A dispute arose between Sergeant William Field, the HPD officer who answered the call, and Ray concerning the duty of the HPD to follow what Ray perceived to be instructions from the Vermont Attorney General's office that HPD investigate his complaint. (Doc. 138 ¶ ¶ 147-52.)

In October 2011, Ray complained that someone had damaged his fence while he was away from his property. He suspected his brother Steve. (Doc. 138 ¶ 156; Doc. 174 at 15.)

In March 2012, Ray complained to the HPD that someone was honking his or her horn while driving past his house. He returned to the HPD in April and identified his brother Leo as the perpetrator. At the direction of then-chief of police Cochran, Leo was issued a traffic ticket. The honking came to an end. (Doc. 138 ¶ ¶ 159-60; Doc. 174 at 15.)

D. Aggravated Assault Charge

On November 11, 2008, Sandy Thompson (daughter of Leo Shatney and sister of Terrie Rich) complained to the HPD that Ray had choked her. (Doc. 138 ¶ 67.) Sandy's version of the events of that day, as stated to the HPD, was that she had honked her horn while passing the farm in honor of her late grandmother Leona. When she parked in her own driveway, she found that Ray had followed her home by car. He put his hands around her neck and called her abusive names. (Doc. 138 ¶ ¶ 74-78.)

Ray's version of the events is different. He states that the honking started in October 2008. (Doc. 174 at 28.) On November 11, Sandy honked and raised her middle finger at him. [ Id. at 29.) Ray told the HPD officer investigating the matter that he had been knocked down by a bull when Sandy honked her horn. (Doc. 138 ¶ 84.) As he described the incident, he then followed Sandy to her home where they had a verbal argument in the driveway. (Id. ¶ 85; Doc. 174 at 9.)

Ray agrees that Sandy told the HPD that Ray choked her. [ Id. at 7.) He adds that Sandy also told the officers that Ray had stolen her cattle and accused Ray of forgery. (Id.) According to Ray, Sandy told the police that he squeezed and shook her and that he had liquor on his breath. (Id.)

Following the incident, Sandy sought treatment at the emergency room of a local hospital. (Doc. 174 at 8.) Sandy provided written statements to the HPD on November ...

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