Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Union City confidentially paid out $100,000 to resolve ICE agent's false arrest lawsuit.

On December 27, 2016, the City of Union City (Hudson County) agreed to pay $100,000 to a Homeland Security Special Agent who claimed that he was arrested for questioning a woman who he believed was surveilling his apartment.  Mayor/State Senator Brian Stack, who allegedly became irate after the woman called him, came to the scene and reportedly screamed "I am the f**king Mayor! This is my city! F**k the feds!" several times.

In his complaint, Ricky Patel, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent, said that on November 30, 2012 he observed a woman parked outside his residence "conducting what he thought was surveillance since the previous day."  He confronted the woman after learning that there was a note from the Union City Police Department on his windshield saying that his vehicle was "part of an ongoing investigation."

According to the complaint, the woman became combative when Patel questioned her and made a phone call at the same time Patel called Union City Police.  Patel said that he heard the woman make the call and say "Brian, that guy from the silver car is asking me why I'm parked here."  Soon thereafter, Stack arrived on the scene with two other men and reportedly "began screaming in [Patel's] face."  Patel said that he heard Stack on the phone saying "get the f**king Chief of Police down here."  When Captain Nichelle Luster arrived, Stack allegedly demanded that Patel be arrested for harassment and that his vehicle be impounded.

When questioned by Luster at the police station, Patel said that Luster was concerned that federal agents were "conducting an unsanctioned investigation against our mayor."  According to the complaint, Mayor Stack lived on the same street as Patel and an FBI corruption raid on City Hall occurred just two weeks prior.  Patel said that he didn't know that Stack lived on his street and that he refused Luster's request to search his apartment.  Patel said that he was released after other Union City officers vouched for his identity.

Patel claimed that shortly thereafter he received a notice from the State of New Jersey that his apartment was to be inspected.  He claimed that Stack used his position as a State Senator to arrange for the inspection.  He moved out of the apartment about a month later.

The case is captioned Patel v. City of Union City, et al, Federal Case No. 2:14-cv-07398 and Patel's attorney was Thomas J. Mallon of Freehold.  Case documents are on-line here

The lawsuit received news coverage shortly after it was filed.

The settlement agreement contains a confidentiality clause, which prevents the parties to the suit from publicly disclosing the settlement terms.  Fortunately, however, these confidentiality clauses do not trump the public's right to obtain copies of settlement agreements that arise out of lawsuits in which a government agency or official is a defendant.

None of Patel's allegations have been proven or disproven in court. Settlement agreements typically state that payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by any of the defendants.  All that is known for sure is that Union City or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Patel $100,000 than take the matter to trial. Perhaps the defendants' decision was done to save further legal expense and the costs of trying what were in fact exaggerated or meritless claims. Or, perhaps the claims were true and the defendants wanted to avoid being embarrassed at trial. This is the problem when cases resolve before trial--it is impossible to know the truth of what really happened.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Point Pleasant Beach agrees to pay out $90,000 to settle former water billing clerk's retaliation lawsuit.

An undated and unsigned release recently disclosed by the Borough of Point Pleasant Beach (Ocean County) indicates that the Borough has agreed to pay $90,000 to settle a former borough employee's 2014 retaliation lawsuit against the Borough's administrator, deputy finance officer and tax clerk.  The suit, filed by the Borough's former water and sewer billing clerk, alleged that she was subjected to "a pervasive pattern of adverse employment actions" after reporting that another borough employee falsified water meter readings.

In her suit, Sandra Petersen, who is joined in the lawsuit by her husband Kenneth Petersen, claimed that after discovering in January 2012 that employee Gary McRae "had been falsifying and entering fictitious water meter readings which resulted in [Borough] residents being overbilled and/or under billed for their water/sewer usage," she made a report of her findings to Borough Administrator Christine Riehl and Deputy Finance Officer Kathy Beno.  She claimed that Beno laughed at her report and said "Oh, he's been doing that for years." 

Petersen claimed that she was ridiculed and ostracized by her co-workers and that Riehl, Beno and Tax Clerk Jennifer Coyne "spread vicious and false rumors about Plaintiff having an extramarital affair with the Superintendent of the Department, James Broyles, who had also reported" the alleged fictitious meter readings.  Petersen claimed that she was stripped of her duties, prevented from taking certification courses and was told by the borough clerk that Administrator Riehl "does not want you to advance here."  The lawsuit sets forth a litany Petersen's other claims including being forced to listen to racist and anti-Semitic jokes and being ridiculed for having to use the restroom.  She said that she was "effectively terminated" on May 31, 2013.  The lawsuit was reported by NJ Advance media on June 4, 2014.

The case is captioned Petersen v. Borough of Point Pleasant Beach, et al, Docket No. OCN-L-1404-14 and Petersen's attorney was Rosemarie Arnold of Fort Lee. Case documents are on-line here.

None of lawsuit's allegations have been proven or disproven in court.  Releases typically state that payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by any of the defendants.  All that is known for sure is that Point Pleasant Beach or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Petersen $90,000 than take the matter to trial. Perhaps the defendants' decision was done to save further legal expense and the costs of trying what were in fact exaggerated or meritless claims. Or, perhaps the claims were true and the defendants wanted to avoid being embarrassed at trial. This is the problem when cases resolve before trial--it is impossible to know the truth of what really happened.

Note: The court marked the case as having settled.  While it is possible that a dispute will arise prior to the release being signed, this rarely happens because the settlement terms have been negotiated and agreed to by all the parties.  Readers who wish to be absolutely sure that this case settled according to the terms stated above should submit an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request for the final, signed released.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Elizabeth pays $60,000 to settle police excessive force lawsuit.

On February 28, 2017, the Elizabeth City Council (Union County) resolved to pay $60,000 to settle (see note below) a family's lawsuit that claimed that police inflicted excessive force upon them during a gathering of friends and family who came to mourn a family member's recent shooting death.

In their suit, Chantal Theodore, David Romilus and Jessica Theodore claimed that on June 13, 2008, friends and family gathered at the Theodore's family home to grieve the death of Chantel's son, Curtis, who had been shot and killed earlier that day.  According to the suit, Elizabeth Police Captain Tyrone Tourner, accompanied by a contingent of about twenty police officers, came to the house and ordered the mourners to vacate.  Chantal and Romilus claimed that when they objected to Tourner's order, they were arrested.

Chantal said that she was "grabbed by several officers, thrown against a fence, lifted off her feet, forcibly handcuffed" and arrested for resisting arrest and obstruction.  Romilus, who is Chantal's brother, claimed that Officer Edward J. Pinkevicz sprayed in him in the face with a chemical agent and arrested him for resisting arrest and disorderly conduct.  Jessica, who is Chantal's daughter and Romilus' niece, said that when she ran outside barefoot, she "was almost immediately struck in the back of the head with a nightstick" and was arrested for aggravated assault and resisting arrest.  The trio claimed to have been kept in jail overnight and denied medical attention.

In a June 30, 2008 opinion, the Appellate Division found that Chantal was convicted in municipal court of the obstruction charge, Romilus of disorderly conduct and Jessica of simple assault and that all three convictions were upheld by the Union County Superior Court.  The Appellate Division, however, reversed Romilus' and Jessica's convictions but upheld Chantal's.  The Appellate Division's opinion also provides more context regarding the June 13, 2008 incident, including Tourner's testimony that police had received three complaints that "disorderly people" were at the Theodore residence and that some of the people gathered were sitting on cars in an adjacent restaurant parking lot drinking beer and littering.

The lawsuit also alleges that Officer Phillip McKenna had taken a photograph of Curtis' body after he was shot and circulated it among his fellow officers, friends and acquaintances.  McKenna and other officers named Turner, Pereira and Benenati allegedly assaulted Curtis nearly a year before his death causing him to receive a broken nose and front teeth.  Aggravated assault, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest charges brought against Curtis were allegedly dismissed.

The case is captioned Theodore, et al v. City of Elizabeth et al, Federal Case No. 2:10-cv-0279 and the trio's attorney was originally Mitzy Galis-Menedez of Secaucus who is now a Hudson County Superior Court Judge.  Case documents are on-line here.   

None of the trio's allegations have been proven or disproven in court and settlement, without more, does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by Elizabeth or any of its officials. All that is known for sure is that Elizabeth or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay the trio $60,000 than take the matter to trial. Perhaps the defendants' decision to settle was done to save further legal expense and the costs of trying what were in fact exaggerated or meritless claims. Or, perhaps the claims were true and the defendants wanted to avoid being embarrassed at trial. This is the problem when cases settle before trial--it is impossible to know the truth of what really happened.

(Note: It is presently unclear whether or not there might be another, separate settlement agreement pertaining to this lawsuit.  Another OPRA request was filed on March 13, 2017 and this article will be updated upon receipt.)

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Paulsboro paid out $300,000 to settle former Borough Administrator's "racially hostile work environment" lawsuit.

On June 28, 2016, the Borough of Paulsboro (Gloucester County) agreed to pay $300,000 to settle a retaliation lawsuit filed in 2015 by its former Borough Administrator.

In her suit, Leeann Ruggeri claimed that Mayor W. Jeffrey Hamilton and Council members Theodore D. Holloway II, Joe Kidd and Jennifer Turner created a racially hostile work environment for her.  She claimed that at least some of the four defendants supported hiring candidates based on their race rather than on their qualifications.  The lawsuit describes Ruggeri as "a non-Hispanic Caucasian female" and says that Hamilton, Holloway, Kidd and Turner are all African American.  According to the Borough's website, Hamilton and Turner no longer hold elected office in Paulsboro while Holloway and Kidd do. 

Ruggeri claimed that Holloway and other unnamed officials made public statements urging the hiring of African American employees over prospective employees of other races.  She claimed that after she interviewed seven candidates for a position in the water and sewer department, Mayor Hamilton and Councilman Kidd were displeased that her recommended candidate was not African American.  According to the suit, Ruggeri later learned that Kidd had promised the job to an African American individual who was not the best candidate. 

The lawsuit contains many other grievances, including a claim that Ruggeri was retaliated against after she blocked Mayor Hamilton's attempt to hire an unqualified relative of Councilman Kidd to fill a Borough position.  As another example, Ruggeri said that she was "evicted from her office" and that Kidd went so far as to try to get the local police to forcibly remove her from her office.

According to an August 15, 2015 NJ.com article, the Borough Council "voted along racial lines" to fire Ruggeri a few days after she filed her lawsuit. 

The case is captioned Ruggeri v. Borough of Paulsboro, et al, Docket No. GLO-L-1145-15 and Ruggeri's attorneys were Matthew S. Wolf and Marisa Hermanovich of Cherry Hill. Case documents are on-line here.

None of lawsuit's allegations have been proven or disproven in court.  Settlement agreements typically state that payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by any of the defendants.  All that is known for sure is that Paulsboro or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Ruggeri $300,000 than take the matter to trial. Perhaps the defendants' decision was done to save further legal expense and the costs of trying what were in fact exaggerated or meritless claims. Or, perhaps the claims were true and the defendants wanted to avoid being embarrassed at trial. This is the problem when cases resolve before trial--it is impossible to know the truth of what really happened.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Englewood Cliffs Borough agreed, subject to Council approval, to pay $375,000 to settle recently retired deputy chief's retaliation lawsuit.

In a handwritten document signed on December 22, 2016, the Borough of Englewood Cliffs (Bergen County) agreed to pay $375,000 to settle a lawsuit filed in 2012 by the Borough's recently-retired deputy police chief who claimed that Borough officials retaliated against him after a lawsuit he filed in 2006 resulted in him being promoted from lieutenant to captain.

The handwritten settlement agreement stated that it was subject to the approval of the Borough Council. That apparently did not happen because the deputy filed a motion to enforce the settlement which will be heard by Superior Court Judge Keith A. Bachmann on March 17, 2017.  (Update: I have learned that the Borough Council did, at its January 1, 2017 sine die meeting (go to minute mark 19:00), resolved to not interfere with or object to the Borough Council's insurance carrier's plan to settle this case.  I have also submitted an Open Public Records Act request for the briefs for and against the motion for reconsideration and will post them here upon receipt.)

In his lawsuit, Deputy Chief Michael McMorrow, husband of Borough Council President Carol McMorrow, claimed that former Mayor Joseph Parisi reneged on his promise to promote him to police captain in 2006 "as a result of a political agreement between [then Council member Patricia] Drimones and Parisi."  McMorrow claimed that Drimones, who was Lieutenant (now Chief) Michael Cioffi's sister, "became upset" that Cioffi was not to receive the captain promotion and "improperly utilized her influence as a duly elected Councilwoman to block the promotion process." 

According to the lawsuit, Cioffi was appointed to Deputy Chief effective July 1, 2006 and McMorrow was not promoted to captain "despite him having more seniority than Cioffi."  McMorrow said that he was one of two plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed on June 29, 2006 that resulted in a settlement that promoted him to the rank of police captain.

McMorrow said that he was harassed after his promotion.  The complaint recites many examples of alleged harassment, all of which can be read in the civil complaint at the link below.  McMorrow said that the harassment intensified after his wife Carol filed as a Republican candidate to run for Borough Council in November 2009. 

After Bauernschmidt's retirement, Cioffi was promoted to Chief and McMorrow to Deputy.  McMorrow claimed that Cioffi removed many responsibilities from him, said that he could not trust him and kept him out of the loop on important decisions.  McMorrow said that his wife Carol began to receive harassing, anonymous letters at their home.  He claimed that he was served with six disciplinary charges on April 30, 2012 and was later suspended for thirty days for refusing to attend a meeting with the attorney who represented the Borough in a whistle blower suit filed by another police officer.  McMorrow said that he was willing to attend the meeting but only if he had his own attorney present.

According to a December 1, 2016 NorthJersey.com article, McMorrow will also receive a $441,554.05 retirement payout for unused sick and vacation days.  According to the same article, McMorrow, who was earning $212,132 per year, also received a $103,295 payout in 2013 for unused compensatory time. 

The case is captioned McMorrow v. Borough of Englewood Cliffs, et al, Bergen County Superior Court Docket No. BER-L-9051-12 and the McMorrow's attorney was Jeffrey D. Catrambone of Clifton. Case documents are on-line here.

None of lawsuit's allegations have been proven or disproven in court. Settlement agreements typically state that payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by any of the defendants.  All that is known for sure is that Englewood Cliffs Borough or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay $375,000 than take the matter to trial. Perhaps the defendants' decision was done to save further legal expense and the costs of trying what were in fact exaggerated or meritless claims. Or, perhaps the claims were true and the defendants wanted to avoid being embarrassed at trial. This is the problem when cases resolve before trial--it is impossible to know the truth of what really happened.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Ocean City paid out $200,000 to settle teen's sex lawsuit against retired police officer.

On October 4, 2016, the City of Ocean City (Cape May County) paid $200,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by a2013 high school graduate who claimed that a retired Ocean City police officer who provided school security and who was more than 30 years older than her "engaged in increasingly inappropriate behavior" toward her while she was in eleventh grade.  She also alleged that the retired officer, who hired her to inspect beach access tags during the 2012 tourist season, "penetrated [her] vagina with his penis" in their workplace shortly after her seventeenth birthday.

The woman claimed that  retired Ocean City Police Officer Charles E. Cusack would force her to perform oral sex on him and to engage in "rough" sex that involved him "choking her throat as he penetrated her."  On August 4, 2012, one of the teen's coworker allegedly entered the Beach Fee Operations office and witnessed Cusack having sex with the teen.  The coworker reported to another supervisor who reported the matter to police. 

The acts complained about in the woman's lawsuit have been widely reported and resulted in Cusack being sentenced to five years probation, forfeiture of public employment and sex offender registration after entering into a plea bargain.  According to the lawsuit, Cusack retired when he was 48 and collected an annual pension of nearly $70,000.

The case, which bears Cape May Superior Court Docket No. CPM-L-115-15 and the woman's attorneys were Michael L. Testa and Justin R. White of Vineland. Case documents are on-line here.

None of lawsuit's allegations have been proven or disproven in court (although there was a plea bargain in the related criminal matter.)  Settlement agreements typically state that payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by any of the defendants.  All that is known for sure is that Ocean City or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay the woman $200,000 than take the matter to trial. Perhaps the defendants' decision was done to save further legal expense and the costs of trying what were in fact exaggerated or meritless claims. Or, perhaps the claims were true and the defendants wanted to avoid being embarrassed at trial. This is the problem when cases resolve before trial--it is impossible to know the truth of what really happened.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Mantua paid out $85,000 to settle DPW mechanic's hostile workplace lawsuit.

On July 21, 2016, the Township of Mantua (Gloucester County) paid $85,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by a former Public Works mechanic who said that Township officials retaliated against him for insisting that the Township's Anti-Harassment policy be enforced.

According to his lawsuit, Joseph Graciano, who described himself as "dark-skinned and of Mexican/Latin American descent," said that in July 2013 he complained to DPW Director Mike Datz about a co-worker calling him a "f**king n**ger" in the break room.  Graciano, who said that he was the only racial minority employed by Mantua as of May 2016, said that the same co-worker "drove a truck into him and nearly ran him over" in 2008.  After the 2008 incident, the same co-worker, Rick Cade, allegedly yelled out "stupid n**ger, you should have moved." Graciano claimed that despite its Anti-Harassment Policy, Mantua Township did not investigate his allegations and actually promoted Cade after his alleged use of racial slurs was reported.

Graciano's lawsuit also alleged that Township officials retaliated against him for continuing to press his discrimination complaint against Cade.  He said that he was arrested on November 21, 2013 for stealing an old trash can that he had "borrowed from the pile of discarded Township equipment."  He said that other Township employees routinely took equipment home for their personal use.  His lawsuit alleged that Cade "took Township lawn mowers, trucks, trailers and a leaf blower home on numerous occasions."  The suit also claimed that another employee "took a tire changing machine home and used it in his side business."  (As stated below, neither allegation has been proven.) 

Graciano said that he was suspended without pay on November 22, 2013 and that the charges against him were dismissed by the Glassboro Municipal Court after a hearing on June 13, 2014.  When he returned to work on June 17, 2014, he said that Datz gave him a Notice of Disciplinary Action suspending him for 10 days for the trash can theft charge.  He said that the Township did not actually carry through on the suspension.  He said that in October 2014, the Township paid him back pay for the period of his suspension--November 2013 through June 2014.

The lawsuit claimed that the retaliation against Graciano increased after he filed his lawsuit in August 2015.  He said that Mantua official repeatedly wrote him up "for bogus reasons."  He said that the situation was so bad that he resigned in May 2016.

The case is captioned Graciano v. Township of Mantua, et al, Docket No. GLO-L-1151-15 and Graciano's attorney was Scott M. Pollins of Swarthmore, Pennsylvania. Case documents are on-line here.

None of lawsuit's allegations have been proven or disproven in court.  Settlement agreements typically state that payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by any of the defendants.  All that is known for sure is that Mantua or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Graciano $85,000 than take the matter to trial. Perhaps the defendants' decision was done to save further legal expense and the costs of trying what were in fact exaggerated or meritless claims. Or, perhaps the claims were true and the defendants wanted to avoid being embarrassed at trial. This is the problem when cases resolve before trial--it is impossible to know the truth of what really happened.