False Arrest, Due Process and Defamation
Collins v. University of New Hampshire et. al , No. 10-2316
(Decided December 20, 2011)
The plaintiff (Collins), a professor at the University of New Hampshire, received a parking ticket for being parked in a loading zone on campus. Believing that one of his colleagues, Professor Sower, had reported him, he released an expletive-laden tirade upon encountering Sower’s assistant and a graduate student in the lobby of the building housing his and Sower’s offices. Collins’ conduct was reported to the UNH police who arrested Collins the following day for disorderly conduct and stalking. Sower also filed and was granted a restraining order against Collins. Against the recommendation of some of Collins’ colleagues, UNH banned Collins from the campus, placed him on administrative leave with pay and suspended him from his department chair position. An email was also sent to all department faculty and staff stating that “[a]nyone who sees Dr. Collins anywhere on campus should avoid contact with him and immediately notify the UNH Police Department.”
UNH subsequently conducted an investigation into the incident and concluded that Collins had behaved unprofessionally, he would have to apologize to Sower and take an anger management course, and the bans would remain in place.
After a district court trial, Collins was cleared of the stalking and disorderly conduct charges. Collins was given permission to enter the campus for specific events and was eventually notified that he could return to campus and his faculty duties, but was not reinstated to his position as department chair.
Collins filed suit against UNH and two of its administrators alleging false arrest claims based on the disorderly conduct charge and the stalking charge, a Fourteenth Amendment due process claim based on the campus ban, and a defamation claim. The trial court: 1) found that there was probable cause for the warrant on both the disorderly conduct and stalking charges and, therefore, dismissed the false arrest counts; 2) granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants on the due process count since the suspension was with pay; and 3) granted summary judgment to the defendants on the defamation claim based on the substantial truth of the email and the applicability of a qualified exception for untrue statements made in good faith, without malice and with reasonable belief in their truth. The plaintiff appealed.
False Arrest on Disorderly Conduct Charge – The Court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that the arrest was illegal because he was charged with a violation punishable only by fine rather than by incarceration. Since there was probable cause for the arrest on the disorderly conduct charge the defendants were entitled to dismissal of the claims.
False Arrest on Stalking Charge – The Court ruled that the district court had ample undisputed evidence to conclude that the warrant for the arrest on the stalking charges was supported by probable cause, including Collins statements that he was going to kill Sowers, which was sufficient to place a reasonable person in fear for her safety.
Due Process – The Court ruled that the plaintiff’s due process rights were not violated because; 1) there was only a very temporary deprivation of job functions without process and no financial loss; 2) the ban from campus provided for exceptions and multiple opportunities to be heard so that there was adequate process; and 3) the plaintiff was provided adequate notice that he was subject to sanction, including possible permanent loss of his position as department chair.
Defamation – The Court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that the email sent by the administration to faculty could be construed as implying that Collins was “armed and dangerous.” At most the statement may have implied that Collins was dangerous, however, even if that was false, the defendants were privileged in making the statement because they had reasonable ground for believing that Collins could be dangerous and a justifiable purpose in alerting others.