By Brian Messenger
---- — METHUEN — The mayor and police chief met behind closed doors with a federal judge for nearly two hours on Tuesday but emerged without a legal settlement in the chief’s suit against the city.
“We did not come to an agreement,” said Mayor Stephen Zanni yesterday. “The tone of the conversation was good.”
“No agreement was reached but I think significant progress was made,” added lawyer Joseph Sulman, speaking on behalf of police Chief Joseph Solomon. “I’m still hopeful and I’d say the chief is still hopeful an agreement can be worked out.”
Solomon appeared Tuesday afternoon at the John Joseph Moakley Courthouse in Boston with Sulman and two other lawyers. Zanni, former Mayor William Manzi, City Solicitor Peter McQuillan and lawyer Geoffrey Wermuth also attended the private conference.
After discussing settlement negotiations at length with Judge Mark Wolf, the sides scheduled filing deadlines for motions of summary judgement — procedural devices used to dismiss all or parts of a case before it goes to trial.
The city will request the dismissal of Solomon’s suit before trial. Sulman said Solomon will look for Wolf to throw out the city’s “baseless” counterclaims against the chief and rule in his favor on other matters before the case goes to trial.
The city and chief will have until March 29 to file their motions of summary judgement. Opposition motions are due April 30 and the deadline for rebuttals is May 17. Wolf will hear arguments for summary judgement June 17.
If the case is not resolved through summary judgement, the city has also requested “a brief discovery period limited to damages,” according to a recent court filing. Solomon does not believe additional discovery for damages is necessary.
Zanni said he will update the City Council about the conference Monday night during a closed-door executive session.
Settlement negotiations between Zanni and Solomon began in April 2012.
Prospects for reaching a deal recently appeared bleak, according to a joint status report filed in court Friday.
“The parties have not agreed upon terms of settlement,” reads the report. “At this point prospects for settlement appear remote, but the parties are continuing to exchange proposals.”
But by Monday, Solomon told The Eagle-Tribune he had reached a settlement deal with Zanni — a claim the mayor denied. Yesterday, Zanni said no concrete plans are in place to continue negotiations, though he said his office door will remain open for Solomon.
“Does it appear remote? It could be,” said Zanni. “We still have from now to June to negotiate a settlement.”
Zanni said his last settlement offer to Solomon came Feb. 1. The chief countered with an offer of his own on Monday, the mayor said.
Lawsuits between Solomon and city stem from the chief’s firing in 2008. The City Council also cut his $158,295 salary by $25,610 in 2007. Solomon returned as chief in 2010, after the state Civil Service Commission reduced his punishment to a one-year suspension. The city’s appeal of that decision was rejected by a judge in July.
The chief filed a federal suit in May 2011, accusing former Mayor Manzi and the city of “unconstitutional and retaliatory actions” for “illegally” firing him. The city has filed counterclaims against Solomon to recoup nearly $200,000 it repaid to the federal government. The city claims the chief did not fulfill contractual duties in overseeing federal grants.
Solomon believes the city’s counterclaims “lack ... legal and factual support,” according to a court report filed Tuesday.
City councilors indemnified Manzi in September 2011, granting him personal legal protection in the suit because he acted “within the scope of his official duties” as mayor when he fired Solomon. Manzi served as mayor from 2006 to 2011.
Zanni recently hired the private law firm Murphy, Hess, Toomey and Lehane to represent the city and Manzi in the suit. Lawyer Geoffrey Wermuth, who appeared along with McQuillan at Tuesday’s conference, is a member of the firm.
Also Tuesday, Judge Wolf denied Solomon’s call over the summer for “severe sanctions” against the city, after Zanni detailed their settlement talks in the July 2 edition of The Eagle-Tribune.
Zanni spoke to a reporter about a June 19 settlement conference with Solomon and Judge Wolf. Zanni told the reporter that Wolf proposed a dollar figure for a settlement, which the mayor agreed to but Solomon did not.
Solomon sought a financial award to cover attorneys fees for attending and preparing for the conference with Wolf, as well as for drafting the motion for sanctions and any other resulting court appearances.
But Wolf denied Solomon’s motion, citing only “reasons stated at (Tuesday’s) conference,” according to a court filing.