PROVIDENCE - A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit brought by the executive director of Bristol's Benjamin Church Senior Center, finding that she did not prove that the town unlawfully fired, arrested and defamed her in 2017.
U.S. District Court Judge William E. Smith on Thursday ruled in favor of Town Administrator Steven Contente; retired Police Chief Josue Canario; police Lt. Steven St. Pierre; and the town treasurer in striking down the lawsuit brought by Maria Ursini before the allegations could be heard by a jury.
"We are pleased with the decision by Judge Smith that puts to rest all allegations claimed in this lawsuit against town officials," Contente said in a statement released Thursday. "As always, my administration will continue to seek accountability and transparency in the best interest of the Town. That is my pledge and promise to the taxpayers of Bristol."
Previous story: Bristol senior center leader sues town over firing, arrest
Ursini's lawyer, Lisa Holley, issued a statement Tuesday.
"After five years of pursuing justice for Ms. Ursini, this was not the result we had hoped for. The court has spoken and we must be respectful of the decision," Holley said in an email. "Unfortunately, the law does not always provide remedies for the harmful behaviors of others, especially government actors who enjoy immunity for their actions."
Ursini could not be reached at the senior center, where she continues to work after being rehired by the nonprofit organization that oversees the center.
What happened to the Bristol official
The lawsuit, filed in 2019, traced a bitter dispute that began shortly after Contente, a former Bristol police chief, became town administrator in 2016.
Ursini alleged that Contente began questioning her salary at the center, which she'd worked at since 2008 and led since 2010, as well as grant-funded positions she held.
In 2017, Contente sent her a letter slashing her salary and dictating the hours she could work in each job. The town then created a new "coordinator of senior services," with educational qualifications that Ursini could not meet.
On Aug. 17, 2017, St. Pierre notified Ursini's lawyer that her client would be charged with felony counts of obtaining money under false pretenses and embezzlement, as well as providing a false document to a governmental official, which is a misdemeanor. Ursini turned herself in to the police that day.
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According to the suit, the state attorney general's office agreed in November 2017 to drop the two felony charges. A month later, Ursini entered a not guilty filing to the false document charge, and agreed to pay the town $698 while not admitting any guilt. A year later, the case was expunged.
Canario then issued a press release announcing that Ursini had "accepted a plea agreement," when in fact she pleaded not guilty, the suit said. As a result, Ursini endured humiliation, embarrassment and emotional distress.
In July 2018, the Benjamin Church Senior Center, the nonprofit organization that runs the center, re-hired Ursini as its executive director, though the hours were cut. The woman who answered the phone at the center Tuesday said Ursini remains at the helm and that she would pass a message along.
In issuing a lengthy text order, Judge Smith rejected Ursini's wrongful termination claims, finding that the facts showed that she was an at-will employee and was barred from bringing such claims. Though the judge found there is evidence Ursini suffered emotional distress, "no reasonable jury could conclude that [the town's] conduct was extreme and outrageous."
Smith struck down Ursini's claims alleging she was fired in retaliation for exercising her free speech rights because she had not proved that officials lacked probable cause to suspect that money had been misappropriated. Smith dismissed false arrest allegations, also on probable cause grounds, noting that a state District Court judge had signed off on the arrest warrant.
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The judge concluded that the defamation claim was not brought within the required one-year statute of limitations and that Ursini had failed to establish through clear and convincing evidence that officials issued the statement after her plea with actual malice - as required under court precedent for public officials.
"Even taking all facts in the light more favorable to [Ursini], there is simply no evidence of actual malice, let alone clear and convincing evidence," Smith said.
This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: Judge dismisses 2019 lawsuit against Bristol, RI officials