Thursday, August 24, 2023

Judge rules lawsuit against city will move on to trial

A federal judge has denied a motion to dismiss the lawsuit filed against the City of Wayne, Police Chief Ryan Strong, Police Lt. Finley Carter and City Manager Lisa Nocerini.

In the ruling issued Aug 16, Judge Shalina D. Kumar found merit in the charges of Wayne resident Mark Blackwell who claims police were instrumental in having him falsely charged with misdemeanor offenses of stalking and disturbing the peace.  He was subsequently cleared of all charges in district court. His attorney alleges that Blackwell was charged with the crimes as retaliation for his public criticism of Nocerini and that both his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights were violated by the defendants.  

The latest court ruling denies the city request for a summary judgment. In the ruling, the judge noted that as Blackwell had already agreed to drop two of his claims, she would automatically grant the motion to dismiss those charges. The claim of First Amendment retaliatory persecution and municipal liability against the city, however, were granted. Those allegations will now move forward through the court system to trial. 

Attorneys for both the city and Blackwell argued their case in a hearing July 12. Blackwell claims that following a 2018 independent investigation into Nocerini's unusual activity in city hall he was critical of her conduct during the public comment portion of Wayne City Council meetings. The report concluded with a recommendation that Nocerini be disciplined and or terminated. Blackwell admits he was vocal regarding the findings during the January 2019 meeting and advocated Nocerini's termination. Blackwell repeatedly urged the council to take note of the resignations of four city officials including the police chief and personnel director during Nocerini's employment.

Blackwell claims that following his public comments, Nocerini asked newly-appointed acting Police Chief Ryan Strong to pursue criminal charges against him. She charged Blackwell was stalking her by driving down Wayne Road two cars behind her, taking photos of her at a public meeting and gathering with others in the parking lot of city hall following meetings of the city council.

The judge assigned to rule on those charges against Blackwell found him not guilty. That judge found that Blackwell was “not doing anything out of the norm” and that “there was no alleged conduct outside of city business or outside of city property.” He said stalking could not be proven because “it was not reasonable for a person to feel emotionally distressed” by Blackwell's conduct.  

In the latest court opinion, the judge ruled that Blackwell had alleged enough facts to support a claim for First Amendment retaliatory prosecution against the defendants. She noted that Blackwell's outspoken condemnation of the city manager at city council meetings is “exactly the type of criticism of government and public officials that is protected by the First Amendment.”

The judge also ruled that Blackwell's allegations plausibly show the defendant's retaliatory motives in filing criminal charges against him. She further determined that probable cause did not support the charges filed against Blackwell. She found the allegation that Strong only investigated and charged Blackwell “to gain Nocerini's support to become the permanent police chief” plausible.

Kumar also denied the city claim of “qualified immunity.” The judge said the defendants should have known their conduct violated Blackwell's clear First Amendment rights. In addition, she denied the claim of absolute witness immunity claimed by Nocerini and Strong and said “the allegations are sufficient to establish the City's liability based on Strong's actions.”

Those actions against Blackwell are included in a separate lawsuit filed by Wayne Police Ofc. Abraham Hughes who claims he achieved higher test scores than Strong when applying for the chief's position. Hughes claims in his lawsuit that Strong agreed to Nocerini's insistence on investigating and charging Blackwell in exchange for her circumventing the announced hiring procedures guaranteeing him the promotion to police chief.

Strong and Nocerini have denied Hughes’ claims and the city claims Strong received the highest test score. That lawsuit is currently in the hands of the U.S. District Court.

Unconfirmed reports on Tueday cliamed that Nocerini had resigned from her position. 

City attorneys have also attempted unsuccessfully to prevent the disclosure of the independent report regarding Nocerini's conduct in both lawsuits.