Justia Civil Rights Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in New Hampshire Supreme Court
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Plaintiff Clifford Avery appealed a superior court order that dismissed his complaint for breach of contract against the Commissioner of the New Hampshire Department of Corrections (DOC or department). Avery argue the trial court erred in concluding that his suit was barred by sovereign immunity and, alternatively, that he lacked standing. Avery was an inmate at the New Hampshire State Prison for Men (NHSP) who sued the DOC as part of a federal, class-action, 42 U.S.C. 1983 lawsuit, and the federal district court found that conditions at the NHSP subjected inmates to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The lawsuit resulted in a consent decree requiring the DOC to provide certain services to inmates confined at the NHSP, regularly inspect prison conditions, and ensure that NHSP practices, including those related to food service, medical care, mental health care, sanitation, and maintenance, comported with specified standards. The consent decree was modified to resolve issues raised by Avery and the class of original plaintiffs in motions for contempt that alleged the DOC was violating the terms of the original decree. In his complaint here, Avery made numerous allegations that conditions at the NHSP violated the terms of the settlement agreement. After the case was submitted, the New Hampshire Supreme Court directed the parties to provide supplemental briefing on the issue of sovereign immunity and sought amicus briefing. The Supreme Court determined RSA 491:8 (as amended July 2020) waived the State's sovereign immunity for Avery's suit for breach of the settlement agreement. Furthermore, Avery had standing to pursue his action. The trial court therefore erred in dismissing Avery's complaint on these grounds; the matter was reversed and remanded for further proceedings. View "Avery v. Commissioner, New Hampshire Department of Corrections" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Amy Burnap appealed a superior court order granting summary judgment to the Somersworth School District (District) on her claim of employment discrimination based upon her sexual orientation. The District hired the plaintiff as the Dean of Students at Somersworth High School for a one-year period beginning in July 2015. It was undisputed plaintiff “is a member of a protected class of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender individuals.” In January 2016, several instances of purported misconduct involving plaintiff came to light, setting in motion a sequence of events that culminated in her termination. She argued to the New Hampshire Supreme Court that the trial court erred because there were disputed material facts that could allow a jury to determine that the District’s stated reason for firing her, sexual harassment, was a pretext for unlawful sexual orientation discrimination because: (1) her colleagues’ alleged discriminatory animus infected the District’s decision to fire her; and (2) a preliminary investigation conducted prior to the District’s decision was a “sham.” The Supreme Court affirmed because there were insufficient facts in the record from which a jury could find, under either argument, that the District fired the plaintiff because of her sexual orientation and used sexual harassment as a pretext. View "Burnap v. Somersworth School District" on Justia Law

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Defendants were all arrested and convicted of violating a Laconia Ordinance prohibiting nudity in public places. They jointly moved to dismiss the charges against them, arguing the ordinance violated the guarantee of equal protection and their right to free speech under the State and Federal Constitutions. They further contended that the City of Laconia lacked the authority to enact the ordinance and that the ordinance was preempted by RSA 645:1 (2016). Finally, defendants maintained that the ordinance violated RSA chapter 354-A. Following a hearing, the court denied the defendants’ motion, and subsequently found them guilty of violating the ordinance. The New Hampshire Supreme Court agreed with the trial court that the ordinance merely prohibited those who access public places from doing so in the nude, and made a permissible distinction between the areas of the body that must be covered by each gender. Accordingly, their convictions were affirmed. View "New Hampshire v. Lilley" on Justia Law

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Petitioner Kyle Guillemette challenged a determination by the Administrative Appeals Unit (AAU) of the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) that the notice requirements set forth in RSA 171-A:8, III (2014) and New Hampshire Administrative Rules, He-M 310.07 did not apply when Monadnock Worksource notified Monadnock Developmental Services of its intent to discontinue providing services to petitioner because that act did not constitute a “termination” of services within the meaning of the applicable rules. Petitioner received developmental disability services funded by the developmental disability Medicaid waiver program. MDS was the “area agency,” which coordinated and developed petitioner’s individual service plan. Worksource provides services to disabled individuals pursuant to a “Master Agreement” with MDS. Worksource began providing day services to the petitioner in August 2012. On March 31, 2017, Worksource notified MDS, in writing, that Worksource was terminating services to petitioner “as of midnight on April 30.” The letter to MDS stated that “[t]he Board of Directors and administration of . . . Worksource feel this action is in the best interest of [the petitioner] and of [Worksource].” Petitioner’s mother, who served as his guardian, was informed by MDS of Worksource’s decision on April 3. The mother asked for reconsideration, but the Board declined, writing that because the mother “repeatedly and recently expressed such deep dissatisfaction with our services to your son, the Board and I feel that you and [petitioner] would be better served by another agency . . . .” Thereafter, petitioner filed a complaint with the Office of Client and Legal Services alleging that his services had been terminated improperly and requesting that they remain in place pending the outcome of the investigation of his complaint. Because the New Hampshire Supreme Court concluded that the AAU’s ruling was not erroneous, it affirmed. View "Petition of Kyle Guillemette" on Justia Law

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Farmington School District appealed a Board of Education (state board) decision reversing the decision of the Farmington School Board (local board) not to renew the employment contract of Demetria McKaig, a guidance counselor at Farmington High School. In November 2012, a student (Student A) and her boyfriend told McKaig and another guidance counselor that Student A was pregnant and that she wanted to terminate her pregnancy. Student A was fifteen years old at the time. McKaig suggested that Student A tell her mother about the pregnancy, but Student A refused. The principal expressed his view that the school should inform Student A’s mother about the pregnancy. McKaig disagreed, asserting that Student A had a right to keep the pregnancy confidential. McKaig spoke with Attorney Barbara Keshen of the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union about Student A’s situation. Keshen’s opinion was that the judicial bypass law protected the confidentiality of Student A’s pregnancy and the fact that she was contemplating an abortion. McKaig relayed this opinion to Student A, and Student A made an appointment with a health center and another attorney to assist her with the judicial bypass proceedings. Meanwhile, the principal instructed the school nurse to meet with Student A to tell her that the school would inform her mother about her pregnancy. McKaig told the principal about her conversation with Keshen and urged him to contact Keshen to discuss Student A’s rights. The principal did not contact Keshen; however, Keshen contacted him. He told Keshen that the parental notification and judicial bypass laws did not prevent him from telling Student A’s mother about the pregnancy. Keshen instituted a petition for a temporary restraining order (TRO) against the principal to prevent him from contacting Student A’s mother. McKaig was named as the petitioner “ON BEHALF OF [Student A]”; she was not named in her individual capacity. The TRO was ultimately granted. Months later, McKaig received a notice of nonrenewal from the superintendent; in the written statement of the reasons for non-renewal, the superintendent listed three reasons: insubordination, breach of student confidentiality, and neglect of duties. After the hearing, the local board upheld McKaig’s nonrenewal on those grounds. McKaig appealed to the state board, which found, pursuant that the local board’s decision was “clearly erroneous.” The state board reversed the local board’s decision to uphold McKaig’s nonrenewal, but it did not order McKaig’s reinstatement or any other remedy. McKaig cross-appealed the state board’s decision and argued that she was entitled to reinstatement with back pay and benefits. The Supreme Court affirmed the state board’s reversal of the local board’s decision, and ordered that McKaig be reinstated to her former job. The case was remanded to the state board for further proceedings to determine whether she was entitled to additional remedies. View "Appeal of Farmington School District" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs Nichole Wilkins and Beverly Mulcahey sued their former employer, Fred Fuller Oil Company, Inc. (Fuller Oil), for sexual harassment and retaliation. Plaintiffs also sued Frederick J. Fuller, an employee of Fuller Oil, individually Prior to trial, defendant sought to prohibit plaintiffs from asserting claims against him under RSA chapter 354-A in his individual capacity. The district court thereafter informed the parties that it would not allow plaintiffs to assert such claims. Subsequently, Fuller Oil filed for bankruptcy protection and, therefore, the case against Fuller Oil was stayed; the case was reopened as to claims against defendant. Because the questions of whether an employee could recover damages from another employee for aiding and abetting sexual harassment or for retaliation under RSA chapter 354-A concerned unresolved issues of New Hampshire law, the United States District Court for the District of New Hampshire certified two questions of New Hampshire law to the New Hampshire Supreme Court: (1) whether sections 354-A:2 and 354-A:7 of the New Hampshire Revised Statutes imposed individual employee liability for aiding and abetting discrimination in the workplace; and (2) whether section 354-A:19 of the New Hampshire Revised Statutes imposed individual employee liability for retaliation in the workplace. The New Hampshire Supreme Court answered both questions in the affirmative. View "U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Comm'n v. Fred Fuller Oil Company, Inc." on Justia Law

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Respondent, the father of G.G., appealed a superior court order which, after de novo review, upheld a finding by the 10th Circuit Court – Portsmouth Family Division that the respondent had abused and neglected G.G. Respondent challenged the superior court’s denial of his request to cross-examine or subpoena G.G. after the court admitted her videotaped interview into evidence. The Supreme Court concluded that given the plain language of the pertinent statutes and the court’s inherent authority to control the proceedings before it, trial courts have the discretion in abuse and neglect proceedings to determine whether any witness, including the child, should be compelled to testify. The record was unclear as to whether the trial court adequately considered the competing interests of respondent and the child. The Supreme Court vacated the trial court's decision and remanded this case for further proceedings: "[w]hen the court is considering whether to compel G.G. to testify in this case, the court may wish to consider whether she testified at the respondent's criminal trial and, if so, whether her testimony in the criminal proceeding would suffice for the instant proceeding." View "In re G.G." on Justia Law

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The United States District Court for the District of New Hampshire certified a question to the New Hampshire Supreme Court: Whether RSA 507-B:2 and RSA 507-B:5 were constitutional under Part I, Article 14 of the New Hampshire Constitution, to the extent they prevented recovery for Plaintiff's claim for civil battery and damages against the Town of Sanbornton under a theory of respondeat superior. This case arose from a municipal police officer's use of a stun gun during a field sobriety test. Plaintiff Dennis Huckins alleged that the police officer, defendant Mark McSweeney, used his stun gun on him "multiple times." McSweeney claimed he used it only once when plaintiff began to run away before completing the field sobriety test. Plaintiff sued McSweeney and his employer, defendant Town of Sanbornton for damages, alleging, among other claims, a battery claim against McSweeney for his use of the stun gun and a claim that the Town was liable for battery under the doctrine of respondeat superior. The defendants sought summary judgment on both claims. The court denied McSweeney’s motion because the evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to plaintiff, did not establish that McSweeney fired only once, and because "[n]o reasonable police officer could have believed that the encounter . . . justified firing the [stun gun] a second time." Upon careful consideration of the facts of this case and the implicated statutes, the New Hampshire Court answered the certified question in the affirmative. View "Huckins v. McSweeney" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Kenneth Lahm appealed a superior court order that granted summary judgment to defendants, Detective Michael Farrington and the Town of Tilton. Plaintiff sued defendants for negligence. Farrington interviewed an alleged victim who was recovering from severe burns and bruises at Concord Hospital, and who stated that she believed she had been sexually assaulted. The alleged victim claimed that, three days earlier, she had gone home with plaintiff after drinking approximately four beers at a bar. She claimed that, upon arriving at plaintiff's house, plaintiff gave her two drinks containing Red Bull, after which she "passed out" and did not remember anything until waking three days later in plaintiff's bed, without any clothes, and discovering severe burns and bruises on her body. Following plaintiff's arrest and the search of his house, an evidentiary probable cause hearing was held, at which a judge found probable cause that plaintiff had committed second-degree assault. Plaintiff hired private investigators, who interviewed, among other people, neighbors who recalled seeing the alleged victim outside plaintiff's house during the time she claimed to have been passed out. The investigators also interviewed a friend of plaintiff, a medical doctor who said that he spoke to the alleged victim by phone about her injuries, and that she told him they had been caused by her having accidentally fallen onto a wood stove. Plaintiff claimed that, once the prosecution received this and other "exculpatory information," which he provided to the court, it dropped the pending charge against him. Plaintiff sued Farrington and the Town, alleging that Farrington had conducted a negligent investigation prior to his arrest, and that the Town was vicariously liable. The defendants moved for summary judgment on the basis, among other grounds, that Farrington "did not have a legal duty to investigate beyond establishing probable cause before arresting and bringing a criminal charge against [Lahm]." Upon review, the Supreme Court concluded that immunizing police officers from "extended liability" was an interest that outweighs plaintiff's claimed interest in requiring a "reasonable investigation beyond just finding probable cause" prior to arrest. Because Farrington owed no duty to plaintiff, he could not be found liable for negligence on these facts. Absent tortious conduct by Farrington, the Town could not be vicariously liable for his conduct. View "Lahm v. Farrington" on Justia Law

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Petitioner Justin Czyzewski appealed a Superior Court ruling that denied his request for a declaration that although he was convicted of attempted sexual assault, he was not required to register as a sex offender under New Hampshire law. Although the record did not contain the details of his conviction for attempted sexual assault, the trial court noted that the petitioner "engaged in conduct in an online chat room with an undercover police detective, whom [he] believed to be a 13-year old female." The petitioner lived in Pennsylvania but, as the trial court stated, "was required to register as a sex offender [there] because he would be required to register in New Hampshire." Upon review, the Supreme Court could not " subscribe to the petitioner's statutory interpretation," and affirmed the Superior Court's ruling. View "Czyzewski v. New Hampshire Department of Safety" on Justia Law