A federal judge has granted summary judgment in favor of the town of Westport and several Westport police officers in a suit by a local man who said he was improperly arrested on two occasions.
Plaintiff Mark Sargent, an attorney, had sued the city and the officers claiming they should not have charged him with disorderly conduct on two separate occasions following altercations with his wife. Sargent, who was in the midst of a divorce in 2011 when he was arrested, alleged the officers took his wife’s word over his word and said he was discriminated against based on gender. He claimed his constitutional rights were violated and argued officers shouldn’t have taken his ex-wife’s word because she had a mental illness.
In her 36-page ruling issued Sept. 19, U.S. District Judge Janet Hall dismissed all of Sargent’s claims, including false arrest and equal protection claims.
On the gender claims, Hall wrote: “Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs, the court cannot conclude that there is evidence sufficient for a jury to find that the police were acting with an intent to discriminate against Sargent on the basis of his gender.”
Police were called numerous times to the home of Sargent and his then-wife, Pamela Stautberg-Moffet, during the spring of 2011, according to the decision. Not all of the incidents police responded to led to charges. Sargent’s first disorderly charge triggered a criminal protective order against him, Hall noted.
Stautberg-Moffet had told local police she was scared and intimidated by Sargent’s behavior, which allegedly included claims he was “pulling on her” body, according to the decision. In another instance, Sargent allegedly tried to gain access to the bathroom of a guest bedroom in the home they shared to confront her about a journal both sides said they owned.
Catherine Nietzel, attorney for Westport and the officers, said Tuesday that, in most similar cases, judges only rule on the qualified immunity doctrine, which protects officers who reasonably believe they are acting within the law. Hall, Nietzel said, went much further.
“The judge went a step farther and said these particular officers acted appropriately. The point she was making was that police officers should investigate all claims of family violence,” said Nietzel, a partner with Ryan Ryan DeLuca in Stamford. “The plaintiff here wanted the judge to say these officers should have known [the] ex-wife was unreliable because she had a mental illness. The judge did not duck the question on whether the officer’s conduct was appropriate and that was satisfying to my clients.”
Sargent, who was seeking money damages against the town, declined to comment Tuesday. He had two attorneys representing him: Naugatuck solo David DeRosa and Norm Pattis, a partner with Pattis & Smith in New Haven. DeRosa declined to comment, and Pattis wasn’t available for comment.
Nietzel added, “The point we kept making was that even people who are mentally ill are entitled to the protection of police officers.”
The gender discrimination allegation, Nietzel said, “is getting a lot of attention within the bar on whether there is discrimination against men in divorce proceedings.”
Nietzel added: “I just thought that was a red herring. In this case, there was nothing about the interaction with police officers that would have given the slightest hint they were crediting her testimony simply because she was a woman.”
The disorderly conduct charges against Sargent were eventually dropped. Stautberg-Moffet was never charged by police.
Assisting Nietzel on the case was Jonathan Zellner, an associate with Ryan Ryan DeLuca.