Mayor entitled to immunity after man ejected from meeting

Thursday, August 12, 2010

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The mayor of Cumberland, Md., is entitled to qualified immunity from a suit filed by a man who alleged he was tossed out of a city hall meeting in 2006 on the mayor’s orders, a federal judge has ruled.

William A. Taccino contended that Mayor Lee Fiedler had him ejected from the building by police simply because he was questioning a city policy.

On Oct. 17, 2006, Taccino walked to the podium during a meeting of the mayor and city council at Cumberland City Hall, according to court papers. Mayor Fiedler presided. Taccino, a private citizen (though now running for county office) who often participated in council meetings, raised the issue of insurance coverage for city-owned vehicles operated by off-duty city employees. Taccino said he became concerned after learning of a DUI charge involving an off-duty city employee.

While at the podium, Taccino began talking to the city attorney, Michael Cohen. Fiedler interrupted the conversation and asked Taccino to “please be quiet” and “please sit down.”

Taccino alleges that when the city attorney said something about the DUI in response to Taccino's question, the mayor cautioned Taccino that he was getting into a personal or personnel matter. Taccino then responded: “It is not personal, sir.”

The mayor then ordered local police officers to remove Taccino from the premises. Taccino alleges that the officers escorted him out of the building and told him that if he returned, he would be arrested. He also alleged that one of the officers gave him a bruise on his arm.

According to the official minutes of the meeting, Taccino questioned Cohen about aspects of the city-vehicle policy and argued with him about its interpretation. Whatever the actual conversation, the result was that Fiedler ordered Taccino removed from the building.

Representing himself, Taccino filed suit in federal court on Oct. 16, 2009, alleging various violations. Among these was that the mayor and others had violated his First Amendment rights by removing him from an open meeting for his speech. Court papers don't explain the three-year delay between the incident and the lawsuit.

On Aug. 5, 2010, Senior U.S. District Judge William M. Nickerson dismissed Taccino's lawsuit in his opinion in Taccino v. City of Cumberland, Maryland. Nickerson ruled that the mayor was entitled to qualified immunity, a doctrine that enables government officials to avoid liability for their conduct if they did not violate clearly established constitutional or statutory law.

Nickerson relied on the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision in Collinson v. Gott (1990), in which the chairman of a board of commissioners ordered the removal of a man who spoke about issues off topic. In Collinson, the 4th Circuit wrote: “It is hard to imagine circumstances in which the tolerance commanded by the immunity doctrine for possible mistakes of judgment by public officials is more appropriate and necessary than those confronted by officials presiding over potentially explosive public hearings.”

Nickerson reasoned that even if the mayor mistakenly believed that Taccino was discussing a personal situation, it was a mistake made in good faith.

“Under the exigencies of the situation as understood by Mayor Fiedler, he certainly could conclude that having Plaintiff (Taccino) removed from the meeting was a reasonable time, place and manner restriction upon speech in this public forum,” Nickerson wrote.

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