A federal judge on Tuesday dismissed a New Canaan man’s lawsuit against the town, 10 police officers, former chairman of the Police Commission and state.
Citing the United States Constitution, statute of limitations and qualified immunity, among other principles, U.S. District Judge Jeffrey Alker Meyer upheld the defendants’ motion to dismiss Michael Nowacki’s claims.
They center, largely, on his three arrests by warrant in 2010.
Following incidents involving his ex-wife and their childcare provider (more on them below), New Canaan Police charged Nowacki on separate occasions with disorderly conduct and illegal use of a motor vehicle with intent to harass, then second-degree harassment and, finally, criminal violation of a protective order, according to Meyer’s ruling.
Ultimately, a jury acquitted Nowacki of the first two charges and the second two were dropped on appeal.
Before the Appellate Court’s decision, however, Nowacki served about three weeks in prison for the jury’s guilty verdicts on the harassment and protective order charges, the ruling said.
As such, Nowacki in his second amended complaint—which he filed himself last July seeking monetary damages, after an initial lawsuit that he had brought in March 2016—said “he has endured severe emotional, psychological and financial distress as a result of being arrested, prosecuted and convicted,” according to Meyer’s ruling.
“In addition to spending three weeks incarcerated during 2012, he was required to liquidate substantial financial resources from his retirement account to cover his legal costs. He was prohibited from leaving Connecticut without the court’s permission for five months. He was expelled from his country club after 27 years of membership. He suffered damage to his reputation, estrangement from his friends, and lost valuable time with his children.”
Nowacki also appears in his original complaint—in a section later removed—to allege that New Canaan’s first selectman and executive assistant during a re-election campaign in 2015 obstructed his own First Amendment rights by turning down a public debate. (Nowacki ran for first selectman two years ago and lost by a more than 10-to-1 margin; he has said he intends to run again this year as a petitioning candidate.)
The judge dismissed Nowacki’s claims “with prejudice” because he twice amended his complaint and “I have nothing to indicate that any more amendments would not be futile.”
He continued in his ruling (embedded below as a PDF): “As I have explained above, plaintiff’s federal claims against the State of Connecticut are plainly barred by the Eleventh Amendment, and his federal claims against New Canaan individual defendants are either time-barred or barred by qualified immunity. His Monell claim against the Town of New Canaan is wholly conclusory, and plaintiff has not alleged any facts that might plausibly show that his arrests and prosecutions were somehow caused by a town policy. Because I believe that amendment would be futile in addressing these barriers to proceeding in federal court, I will not allow leave to file a third amended complaint.”
A Monell claim—a reference to a 1978 case—holds that a town government can be held liable if a plaintiff can demonstrate that a deprivation of a federal right occurred as a result of a “policy” of the local government’s legislative body or of those local officials whose acts may fairly be said to be those of the municipality.
According to Meyer’s ruling, Nowacki and his ex-wife in late-2009 employed a nanny to care for their children. That December, the nanny signed an employment agreement which included a leased car. Two months later, a dispute emerged when the leased car’s tires needed replacement—Nowacki sought to transfer the tires of his own car to it, and then put new ones on his own car, according to Meyer.
According to Nowacki, the nanny refused to cooperate, at which time he drove to where she was working a second job and told her that she had a responsibility to maintain the leased car, as per the agreement, the ruling said.
But she refused to cooperate, according to Nowacki, and he took the leased car back to his house, though unbeknownst to him it contained some of the nanny’s personal property, such as her wallet, according to the ruling.
That night, Nowacki’s ex-wife and nanny contacted police and they requested an escort to get back the property, it said. The nest morning, according to Meyer, Nowacki followed the pair and one of his children to school “in another unsuccessful effort to coordinate the tire exchange,” the ruling said. He drove to his ex-wife’s house a few hours later to return one of the cars to the nanny, it said, and that prompted the nanny to phone police, who responded by warning Nowacki not to contact either of them or risk arrest.
Police then obtained a warrant to arrest Nowacki on the disorderly conduct charge as well as illegal use of a motor vehicle with intent to harass or intimidate—a warrant served on Feb. 24, 2010, according to Meyer.
Nowacki in the meantime had emailed the nanny the night before, threatening legal action and warning her that she has perjured herself to police, the ruling said. Police then obtained an arrest warrant for second-degree harassment, on which charge Nowacki was arrested on Feb. 25, 2010, the ruling said.
A state court judge had entered a formal protective order banning Nowacki from contacting his ex-wife—but he violated that in copying her on an email that had nothing to do with her, the ruling said. Nowacki later claimed he had copied his wife by accident, intending to enter a similar name, it said. The incident led to the charge of criminal violation of a protective order, a charge brought on June 17, 2010.
Nowacki was sentenced following initial guilty verdicts on the latter two charges to serve five years, suspended after 15 months, and served the three weeks prior to a release on bond pending appeal in late May or early June 2012, according to Meyer. He won his appeal nearly three years later.
Meyer wrote in his ruling: “I regret that plaintiff was subject in state court to criminal prosecution on charges for which he was either acquitted or that did not stand up on appeal. I can understand why plaintiff is upset and has sought legal recourse. But the federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction, and the question now before me is not whether plaintiff should have been charged and prosecuted in the first place. The question is whether plaintiff is entitled to recover money damages in a federal court against those he asserts are responsible. I conclude in light of well-established law that the answer to that question is no.”
Ultimately, the lawsuit as it was brought against the state was dismissed on grounds that the state has “sovereign immunity” from such an action brought in federal court.
“As to the remaining defendants from New Canaan, plaintiff’s federal claims are mostly time-barred by the statute of limitations,” Meyer said. “For those few claims that are not time-barred, qualified immunity defeats plaintiff’s claims against any of the individual defendants. As to plaintiff’s claim against the Town of New Canaan, plaintiff has not plausibly pleaded facts to support Monell liability against the town.”