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Even though the state constitution guarantees Connecticut citizens a right to sue for damage to their reputation alone, few do, and even fewer win without showing any economic loss. But on Nov. 10, a six-member jury in New Haven deliberated less than an hour before awarding 64-year-old Hamden city account clerk Dorinda McKiernan $65,000, plus over $40,000 in punitives, for the injury to her professional reputation when a deputy police chief sent her two stinging letters of reprimand in June 2000. McKiernan, represented by New Haven attorney Diane Polan, invoked the doctrine of libel per se, contending her professional competence was wrongly impugned when then-Deputy Police Chief Carmen Riccitelli reprimanded her, in two letters, for making errors in the forecast of the police department’s budgetary needs. McKiernan had multiplied historical rates of holiday-pay spending by the number of holidays remaining, but it resulted in a fourth-quarter shortfall. Polan argued at trial that the prediction was “an imperfect science” — not unlike a weather forecast. Blaming the discrepancy on incompetence, she maintained, was false and libelous. Afterward, Polan called the verdict a warning that employers “cannot scapegoat their employees and falsely accuse them of incompetence.” Because the false statements impugned McKiernan’s professionalism, she didn’t need to show economic loss to win money damages. Robert A. Rhodes, of Halloran & Sage’s Westport office, represented the city of Hamden in the case. He argued that the deputy chief enjoyed an employer’s conditional privilege to reprimand an employee, and that Riccitelli’s criticism was made in good faith, without malice, in an honest belief that his statements were true. A key precedent is the 1987 Appellate Court case of Miles v. Perry, in which a church secretary was wrongly accused of incompetent fund management and accounting. Church officials appealed, contending their statements were a privileged expression on a matter of public concern, and that they were acting in the course of their employment duties. The Appellate Court affirmed that the trial court found adequate malice in defendants’ improper and unjustifiable motive to remove Kristine Miles from her church position. In the 1995 state Supreme Court case of Torosyan v. Boehringer Ingelheim Pharmaceuticals, the high court questioned whether something less than actual malice –recklessness or bad faith — would defeat the employer’s privilege. But the state Supreme Court never decided that issue because malice was demonstrated. Polan said the final jury instructions, delivered by Judge David W. Skolnick, required the plaintiff to ultimately prove malice. That created the basis for punitive damages, in the form of attorneys fees and costs. Previously, the defendants won summary judgment motions that pruned nine of 10 original counts to a pure matter of reputation damage. McKiernan “hadn’t lost her job, she didn’t get demoted, she didn’t get suspended. We had no lost wages claim. So basically it was all an emotional-distress-and-damage-to-reputation verdict,” Polan said. When the verdict was read, with all issues resolved for the plaintiff, McKiernan wept and hugged her attorney, and said the result made her feel “completely vindicated,” Polan recounted. Rhodes said Hamden is reviewing its appeal options.

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