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Maine Supreme Judicial Court Affirms Sheriff’s Entitlement to Discretionary Function Immunity

In December 2011, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court affirmed the Superior Court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of Washington County Sheriff Donald Smith on the ground that Smith was entitled to discretionary function immunity pursuant to the Maine Tort Claims Act.

Smith had been sued by Larry Hildebrand II, an officer at the Pleasant Point Police Department in Washington County in connection with public comments Smith made explaining his decision to discontinue working with the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency (MDEA) after viewing a home video in which Hildebrand, an MDEA operative, appeared.

Smith had announced that the Sheriff’s Department would stop working with the MDEA in part because he believed that Hildebrand’s conduct in the video – which included discharging his service pistol – was inappropriate, if not criminal. Hildebrand claimed that Smith’s statements were politically motivated and defamatory.

In February 2010, Hildebrand filed a complaint against Smith and the Washington County Commissioners, alleging slander, invasion of privacy, and negligent infliction of emotional distress. The trial court concluded that Smith has discretionary function immunity and that the Commissioners could not be liable for Smith’s conduct because he was not their employee.

On appeal, Hildebrand did not challenge the trial court’s conclusion that the Commissioners were not liable for Smith’s conduct. The Supreme Judicial Court applied the four-factor test set forth in Darling v. Augusta Mental Health Inst., 535 A.2d 421, 426 (Me. 1987) to concluded that both Smith’s decision to terminate his offices’ relationship with MDEA and his public explanation for that decision were within the scope of his discretion – whether or not those acts constituted an abuse of that discretion – and thus that the Superior Court had not erred in dismissing the suit against Smith on the ground that he was immune from liability. See: Hildebrand v. Washington County Commissioners, 33 A.3d 425, 2011 ME 132 (Me. 2011).

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Related legal case

Hildebrand v. Washington County Commissioners