Judge tosses wrongful termination suit by former Stockbridge employee Scott Muir
STOCKBRIDGE — A U.S. District Court judge in Springfield has dismissed a wrongful termination lawsuit filed against the town by former municipal employee Scott Muir.
Muir, a lifelong Stockbridge resident, was formally terminated from his two positions, facilities director and emergency services director, in March 2014 — two months after his Jan. 28 acquittal by a Berkshire Superior Court jury on sexual assault charges.
He had been accused of sexually assaulting five young female students between 2003 and 2006 while employed by the Berkshire Hills Regional School District as a student support counselor at the former Stockbridge Plain School. The jury took only 94 minutes to reach its not guilty verdict.
After state police had arrested Muir in April 2012, the town suspended him without pay under a state law allowing a town employee indicted for misconduct to be placed on leave.
Less than a month after the Superior Court verdict clearing Muir, the town paid him $83,000 in back pay and benefits, reinstated him on paid administrative leave and terminated him three weeks later.
The lawsuit filed by Lenox attorney Jeffrey Scrimo contended that Muir's 14th Amendment due process civil rights guarantees had been violated when the town declined to restore him to his two town posts.
The town, represented by Boston attorney Douglas I. Louison of Louison, Costello, Condon & Pfaff, argued that since Muir was an "at will" employee, he was not entitled to federal due-process protection.
Scrimo also contended that the town deprived Muir of his ability to find employment elsewhere "by disseminating a false and defamatory impression about him and failing to provide him with a post-termination hearing."
District Court Judge Mark Mastroianni's order dismissing Muir's case followed motions by attorneys on both sides for a decision from the bench rather than a jury trial. A judge can issue a summary judgment based solely on the law when there is no dispute about the facts of the case.
The judge's ruling could be appealed to the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston by May 4.
In a phone interview, Scrimo said no decision has been made on whether he will file an appeal.
"We're evaluating Mr. Muir's options," he said. "This has been a long process and we'll do whatever is best for Mr. Muir."
Town officials have declined comment on Mastroianni's ruling until the appeal period runs out. Fire Chief Ernest "Chuckie" Cardillo, also a Selectman, did confirm that Muir has been restored to his volunteer position as a firefighter and EMT.
"We're happy to have him back, it's good to have him back in the department," Cardillo told The Eagle.
In his order, Mastroianni referred to a Stockbridge Select Board executive session held March 11, 2014, which included an explanation of the town's decision to dismiss Muir with cause.
Testimony from the Superior Court trial that Muir had allowed children to sit on his lap despite being warned not to do so was cited by the Select Board, along with other reasons, for his dismissal.
Explaining his order to dismiss Muir's lawsuit against the town, Mastroianni cited case law that at-will government employees "do not ordinarily have constitutionally protected" rights for continuing employment, and thus are not protected by the U.S. Constitution's 14th Amendment.
The judge also noted that Massachusetts law establishes a government employee's right to reinstatement following a suspension, but not an additional right to continued employment.
Mastroianni wrote that the court decision hinged on whether Muir had been reinstated and then placed on a separate administrative leave following his jury acquittal, or whether his original suspension remained in place until his final dismissal, as Muir's attorney contended.
The judge pointed to a Feb. 19, 2014, letter from the town that accompanied the check for Muir's back pay explaining that "this payment shall not be construed as an admission of your right to reinstatement, a determination which is presently being considered."
A follow-up letter on Feb. 21 informed Muir he was "being placed on indefinite administrative leave with pay."
Mastroianni also pointed to statements made at the Select Board's executive session by attorney William Rota, who represented Muir at the time, and by Board Chairman Stephen Shatz to strengthen the conclusion that Muir had been reinstated before being ultimately dismissed.
Commenting on the judge's order, attorney Scrimo said the case was more complicated than the nine-page written ruling indicated, but agreed that Mastroianni's order was based on his conclusion from the evidence that Muir had actually been reinstated with pay for nearly three weeks prior to his termination.
Mastroianni also noted a Berkshire Eagle article a day after the executive session quoting a town official on Muir's dismissal. Shortly after Muir was terminated and the article was published, Scrimo contended that Muir also lost two part-time volunteer positions and ultimately received no replies or interviews to at least 11 applications for "numerous employment positions for which he is well qualified."
Mastroianni concluded that Shatz had confirmed to the newspaper that Muir had been terminated, saying only that "we believe we were well within our rights to do so," but that Shatz had declined to discuss the reasons for the dismissal.
Shatz's statement, as reported in the newspaper, "does not level a charge against" Muir that "puts his good name, reputation, honor or integrity at stake" and cannot "reasonably be viewed as creating a false and defamatory impression," the judge wrote.
On Scrimo's contention that Shatz made an unnecessary decision to disclose the dismissal to The Eagle, Mastroianni wrote that "undisputed evidence" indicates that the Eagle reporter already had been following Muir's criminal trial "so it is reasonable to infer that a story about his dismissal would have been written in any case, and mere disclosure of the termination does not create a false and defamatory impression by leveling a seriously damaging charge against him."
Mastroianni added that Muir's case "is also undercut by the fact that Rota," his attorney at the time, "spoke about the dismissal throughout the same article."
Last July, Rota was appointed as Southern Berkshire District Court judge.
Louison, the town's Boston attorney, did not return a call seeking comment on the dismissal.
Scrimo said he is acting as Muir's spokesman and has advised his client not to speak with reporters. The attorney added that Muir continues to actively seek and pursue permanent employment.
Contact Clarence Fanto at 413-637-2551.
Muir case timeline ...
2002: Stockbridge resident Scott Muir is employed at the Stockbridge Plain School by the Berkshire Hills Regional School District as a student support center counselor.
June 2007: Muir's position is eliminated due to a loss of funding.
September 2007: The town hires him as facilities director and, in January 2008, as emergency management director.
April 5, 2012: State Police arrest Muir on 20 counts of sexual assault alleged to have occurred between 2003 and 2006 while he was an employee of the school district.
May 19, 2012: The town suspends Muir without pay.
Jan. 28, 2014: A Berkshire Superior Court jury finds Muir not guilty of all charges following 94 minutes of deliberation.
Feb. 19, 2014: The town sends Muir an $83,000 check for back pay and benefits during his suspension, with a letter stating that "the payment should not be construed as his right to reinstatement, which is under consideration."
Feb. 21, 2014: In a letter from the town, Muir is notified that he is being "placed on an indefinite administrative leave with pay." The letter adds that the Select Board would meet on March 11 to discuss Muir's discipline or dismissal from his two town jobs.
March 11, 2014: Meeting behind closed doors, the Select Board, through its chairman, Stephen Shatz, states that "the decision to reinstate is, in effect, a decision to rehire." The board votes unanimously to dismiss Muir "with and without cause," citing testimony from the trial and forensic evidence.
March 12, 2014: The Berkshire Eagle reports that Muir has been terminated, quoting Shatz and Muir's attorney William Rota, both of whom did not give the reasons for the decision.
May 19, 2014: Stockbridge Annual Town Meeting voters approve a $120,000 legal defense fund in anticipation of legal action against the town.
May 20, 2014: Attorney Jeffrey Scrimo files a federal lawsuit at U.S. District Court in Springfield contending the town wrongly terminated Muir and seeking his client's reinstatement to both town positions based on constitutionally-protected 14th Amendment rights.
April 4, 2016: U.S. District Court Judge Mark Mastroianni dismisses the lawsuit in a summary judgment. His order based on case law states that the town could terminate Muir because he was an "at-will" municipal employee not guaranteed the right to continued employment.
May 4, 2016: The deadline for Muir's attorney to file an appeal to the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston.
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