Monday, July 10, 2006

Bitter Father Wins Ruling

Ex-Fiancee Ordered To Pay Damages
July 2, 2006
By COLIN POITRAS, Hartford Courant Staff Writer
MIDDLETOWN -- A Superior Court judge has awarded $3.5 million in damages to a local man, saying his former fiancée falsely accused him of sexually abusing their daughter during a bitter custody dispute five years ago.

It was a bittersweet victory for Ajai Bhatia, who lost his $100,000-a-year engineering job and his house, and spent tens of thousands of dollars in a tumultuous legal battle to clear his name.

Bhatia was escorted out of his engineering job at the Shelton office of Pitney-Bowes in handcuffs, accused of being a pedophile, on Dec. 26, 2001. He spent four days in jail. He endured a long criminal trial, was acquitted of sexual assault charges resulting from his fiancée's complaint and has been the subject of multiple child-abuse investigations involving the state Department of Children and Families.

But the whopping monetary award is little solace to Bhatia, who acknowledges that he will probably never recover anywhere near that amount from his former fiancée, Marlene Debek of Bridgeport. And he remains distraught over the damage the accusations have caused in his relationship with his daughter, now 9.

Doubtful that he will ever be able to reunify with his daughter because of the lingering stigma of being accused of sex offenses, Bhatia has taken the extraordinary step of asking DCF to terminate his parental rights.

Bhatia filed the request a few days ago out of frustration, believing that he will never fulfill his desire for sole custody of his daughter given what's happened.

Bhatia said he was recently investigated by DCF and cleared of several new allegations of sexual misconduct with his daughter that arose after he was granted unsupervised visits several months ago. His daughter has been living in foster care for most of the past year while her parents try to resolve custody in an ongoing separate court proceeding. Although state officials will not disclose the identity of the person who reported the new allegations, Bhatia suspects Debek is making more complaints to keep him from getting custody.

"Unless I get sole custody, I'm not going to continue," a bitter Bhatia, 40, said. "I feel like [Debek and DCF] are just setting me up for another criminal trial."

After Bhatia was acquitted of the criminal charges in 2003, he filed a malicious prosecution lawsuit against Debek. Connecticut law allows individuals to sue their accusers in a criminal matter if they can prove the accusation was baseless and made with malice.

In a ruling in that lawsuit earlier this month, Superior Court Judge Julia L. Aurigemma found that Debek had no probable cause to accuse Bhatia of a crime.

"She did so with malice in that her motive was to harm the plaintiff and keep him from having any contact with their daughter," Aurigemma wrote. "In the custody battle, Ms. Debek used the claim of sexual abuse as the final weapon in her arsenal against Mr. Bhatia when her other weapons, false-claims of physical violence and danger of [his] flight to India, were not effective."

Aurigemma awarded Bhatia $2.5 million in damages for his emotional distress, loss of reputation and humiliation, which the judge said was "staggering."

"It is difficult to imagine anything worse than being falsely accused of sexually assaulting your own child and having the accuser brainwash the child into believing the false allegations," Aurigemma wrote in her ruling.

The judge gave Bhatia an additional $500,000 for his loss of income, $410,000 in punitive damages and $130,000 for attorney's fees from his initial criminal trial. Bhatia was represented in the malicious prosecution case by New Haven attorney John R. Williams.

"He's been totally destroyed by this," Williams said. "If there ever was a case for malicious prosecution, this was it." Williams said he had never heard of a monetary award as large as Bhatia's in a malicious prosecution case in his 39 years as a litigator.

Debek, who represented herself during the malicious prosecution trial, said she intends to appeal the ruling against her. She said she was overwhelmed by Bhatia's filing of more than 100 motions in several courts in the custody case and couldn't mount a substantive defense to the malicious prosecution charge. She hopes to hire a lawyer for the appeal.

She declined any further comment, saying she didn't want to discuss details of the case in the news media out of fear it would further harm her daughter.

The DCF continues to be the girl's temporary legal guardian until permanent legal guardianship can be decided.

Contact Colin Poitras at cpoitras@courant.com.

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