Monday, September 19, 2016

Cape May City to pay $369,000 to settle former gay cop's discrimination lawsuit.

On September 19, 2016, the insurer for the City of Cape May (Cape May County) produced a draft agreement that calls for $369,000 to be paid to an openly gay former police officer who claimed that department officials unfairly used the Internal Affairs process to discriminate against him.  He also claimed that he was "subjected the most vile anti-gay slurs and other discriminatory conduct by members of the public" and that the City "did not take the appropriate remedial action."

In his lawsuit, Steven Pascal, who describes himself as "an openly gay male" alleged that members of the public hurled anti-gay slurs at him from his hiring in 2002 until he was suspended without pay in 2012.  Specifically, he claimed a juvenile with the initials J.C.--pretending to be Pascal--called Pascal's friends and said that he would like to engage in a sexual act with them.  Pascal said that when he confronted the juvenile about the calls, the juvenile's parents complained to the department which resulted in Pascal being suspended for two days and required to undergo therapy.

Pascal claimed that he complained to then Chief of Police Diane Sorentino who declined to take any action.  This, Pascal claimed, emboldened other members of the public to harass him.  He claimed that two City residents called him various homophobic slurs and said that they would "snap his neck in a dark alley."  This alleged harassment and threat were allegedly witnessed by six Class II Officers that Pascal supervised.

In his complaint, Pascal named Captain Robert Sheehan, Jr., (who for a short period was provisionally appointed as the police chief) as a defendant because of "his direct participant in the acts of harassment, discrimination, and retaliation."  But, allegations in the complaint limit Sheehan's involvement to improperly using the Internal Affairs system against him and requiring him to go to sham fitness for duty examinations.  Ultimately, a hearing officer found that Pascal was unfit for duty which caused his termination on August 16, 2013.

The case is captioned Pascal v. Cape May City, Superior Court Docket No. CPM-L-444-13 and Pascal's attorney was Sebastian B. Ionno of Pitman.  Case documents are on-line here: Civil lawsuit Draft Settlement Agreement and a June 4, 2015 ruling by Judge J. Christopher Gibson that quashed Pascal's subpoena that sought records of the Cape May County Prosecutor's office regarding its alleged investigation of "allegations of sexual harassment and/or inappropriate sexual conduct by Sheehan towards a female employee."  Gibson found that this information, if in existence, "would be relevant as to conduct on Defendant Sheehan's part that violated Cape May City's anti-discrimination policy."  But, Gibson quashed the subpoena because it was not specific enough.

According to the settlement, the City of Cape May paid $50,000 of the total with the remainder apparently being paid by the Atlantic County Joint Insurance Fund, the City's insurer.  Of the total amount paid, Pascal received $193,000 and his lawyer received the remainder.

None of the Pascal'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 Cape May or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Pascal $369,000 than take the matter to trial. Perhaps the 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: The court marked the case as having settled.  While it is possible that a dispute will arise prior to the settlement agreement being signed by the City, this rarely happens because the settlement has 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 settlement agreement.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Somerset County Vo-Tech Board of Education confidentially paid out $75,000 to settle school social worker's whistleblower lawsuit.

On April 25, 2015, the Somerset County Vocational Technical Board of Education quietly agreed to pay $75,000 to a social worker who claimed that school officials diverted State grant money from a program that she ran and then fired her when the program failed for lack of resources and because of the officials' interference.

In her suit, Carolyn Brink said that she headed up the "School-Based Youth Services Program" in the Vo-Tech School.  The program, which is mostly funded by a grant from the New Jersey Department of Children and Families (NJDCF), is designed to meet the emotional, behavioral, and family well-being of students.  Brink claimed that Superintendent Chrys Harttraft and Vo-Tech school principal Diane Ziegler intentionally underutilized the program and diverted grant money to purposes that were not authorized or permitted by the NJDCF.  She said that Harttraft's and Ziegler's actions caused a marked reduction in student use of the Program which was later used as a justification for eliminating both the Program and Brink's position.

She said that Harttraft and Ziegler retaliated against her for having reported them to the NJDCF for the alleged grant money diversion which Brink said she "reasonably believed to be in violation of law, rule and regulation and/or to be fraudulent and/or criminal."  Brink alleged that Director of Pupil Services Joseph Petrosino told her that she should "not be so vocal and communicative with NJDCF about her concerns" and warned her "not to challenge Defendant Ziegler on her decisions" because Harttraft and Ziegler believed that Brink was "tattle-telling" on the district to the NJDCF.

When it was filed, the lawsuit was reported by the Star Ledger

The case is captioned Brink v. Somerset County Vo-Tech Board of Education, Superior Case Docket No. SOM-L-527-13 and Brink's attorney was George W. Fisher of Princeton.  Case documents are on-line here

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 the Brink'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 Somerset County Vo-Tech or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Brink $75,000 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.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Camden paid out $27,500 to settle retired police sergeant's First Amendment violation lawsuit.

Chief J. Scott Thomson
On August 1, 2016, the City and County of Camden agreed to pay $27,500 to a retired Camden City police sergeant who said that he was wrongly arrested for exercising his First Amendment rights during a police installation ceremony.

In his lawsuit, Melvin Ways said that he was forced to retire when the city's police department was dismantled and replaced with a county-wide Metro Police Department.  Ways said that he and other similarly displaced officers went to a May 1, 2013 public ceremony for the newly created Metro department in order to lay their uniform boots outside of the event "as a symbolic gesture signifying the many police officers displaced."

Ways said that although other members of the public were being admitted to the event, he was arrested by Sergeant Zach James as he tried to enter.  Immediately prior to his arrest, Ways told the media that "the City of Camden intentionally sabotaged the [city police department] in order to create Metro."  Ways alleged that J. Scott Thomson, Metro's Chief, had unlawfully ordered officers to not admit any of the displaced officers to the event and "was motivated by a desire to prevent [Ways] and others like him from exercising their First Amendment rights to free speech and to assemble."

Ways said that there was no legitimate reason for the arrest because he could have been issued a summons.  After being chained to a bench for 45 minutes, Ways was issued a defiant tresspassing summons and was released.  He said the summons was later dismissed.

The case is captioned Ways v. Borough of Camden, et al, Camden County Superior Court Docket No. CAM-L-1233-14 and Ways's attorney was Jacqueline M. Vigilante of Mullica 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 Camden or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Ways $27,500 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, September 10, 2016

Millburn Board of Education paid out $435,000 to settle African-American family's lawsuit.

On June 17, 2016, the Millburn Board of Education (Essex County) agreed to pay $435,000 to an African-American family who claimed that school officials turned a blind eye toward racially motivated bullying directed at one of the family's sons, who was then attending Millburn High School.  The family also claim that the son was improperly expelled from school and that Board of Education attempted to condition a grant of an adjournment of the son's expulsion hearing upon the family giving up its right to sue.

In their suit, the parents, Darryl George and Brenda Barnes-George, and their son Omari George, described Millburn as a township with very few African-American residents.  They claimed that as of the day of his enrollment, Omari was subjected to racial slurs and physical injuries, including a broken nose, at the hands of older students.  They claimed that neither Millburn High School Principal William Miron nor Vice-Principal Michelle Pitts took appropriate action except for a January 9, 2009 mediation session that resulted in no disciplinary action being taken.

According to the complaint, an confrontation between Omari and his brother Lamar occurred on January 9, 2009.  Omari and Lamar said that the confrontation occurred when they were walking to the school from their father's car causing them to run back to the car. There, Lamar, reportedly took a baseball bat from his father's car "to protect himself" and was again confronted by the same student when he walked back to school.  According to the lawsuit, "Lamar defended himself resulting in an impact between the baseball bat and [student's] leg."  A fight then broke out involving the student, Omari and Lamar.

Omari, Lamar and their father Darryl were all arrested as they attempted to leave the school in Darryl's car.  According to the lawsuit, all charges against them were ultimately dismissed.  Superintendent Richard Brodow allegedly placed Omari on suspension for nine days but took no action against the other students who were involved in the altercation.  Rather, Brodow reportedly announced to newspapers that the student who allegedly confronted Lamar and Omari was a "hero" and said that the altercation was "conspiracy by members of the George family to assault" other students.  Omari was expelled on March 4, 2009 but that decision was reversed by the Commissioner of Education on November 12, 2010.

The case is captioned Omari George, et al v. Millburn Board of Education, Federal Case No. 2:11-cv-0043 and the Georges' attorneys were Harry Jay Levin and Colleen Flynn Cyphers of Toms River.  Case documents are on-line here.  The settlement agreement was signed solely by Omari George and not by his parents.

None of the George family'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 Millburn or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay the family $435,000 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.


West New York confidentially paid out $50,000 to photographer who said that he was arrested for not showing his ID.

On July 27, 2016, the Town of West New York (Hudson County) agreed to pay $50,000 to a photography student from Hackensack who said that West New York police beat him up for questioning why they wanted to see his identification.  He said that police also erased a recording of the encounter from his phone and took $40 and a necklace from him that was never returned.

In his lawsuit, Rene Berdugo, a photography student at the School of Visual Arts, said that he was taking photos of a bodega at 62nd and Monroe on April 27, 2013 when Officers Marco A. Barrera and Hector A. Rodriguez asked him for identification.  When he asked the officers why they wanted his ID, they allegedly told him that they would arrest him if he refused.  Berdugo said that he began recording the encounter on his cell phone while walking backwards into the bodega.  According to Berdugo, the officers punched and kicked him, arrested him and took him to police headquarters where officers erased the video from his cell phone and took $40 in cash and a necklace from him.

The case is captioned Berdugo v. Town of West New York, et al, Federal Case No. 2:15-cv-00112 and Berdugo's attorney was Thomas J. Mallon of Freehold. Case documents are on-line here.

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 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 West New York or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Berdugo $50,000 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.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Jersey City paid out $14,500 to settle police excessive force lawsuit.

On July 15, 2016, the City of Jersey City (Hudson County) agreed to pay $14,500 to a local man who said that he he was assaulted by several Jersey City police officers and then let go.

In his suit, Tevin Henry claimed that on November 1, 2012, he put his hands up after hearing police yell "freeze."  He said that police "pushed his face into the ground and began hitting him with flashlights and night sticks in the face," "stepped on his chest" and released him without arresting him. 

Named in the suit were Police Chief Thomas J. Convey, Sergeant Stephen Trowbridge, Captain John Sabo, Sergeant Anthony Tedesco, Sergeant Timothy O'Brien and Police Officers William Costigan, Christopher Daliani, Michael J. Rivera, Keith O'Brien, J. Larkins, Anthony Cancel, Vincent Alberto and Brian Cullinane.  The lawsuit was dismissed as to the New Jersey Transit Police and Hudson County Prosecutor's Office.

The case is captioned Henry v. Jersey City et al, Federal Case No. 2:14-cv-05480 and Henry's attorney was Jessica L. DiBiana of Livingston.  Case documents are on-line here.

None of Henry's allegations have been proven or disproven in court. The settlement resolution expressly states that the $14,500 payment does not admit wrongdoing by Jersey City or any of its officials. All that is known for sure is that Jersey City or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Henry $14,500 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.

Montclair Township confidentially paid out $30,000 to settle false arrest and malicious prosecution lawsuit.

On May 20, 2016, the Township of Montclair (Essex County) agreed to pay $30,000 to a local man who claimed that police falsely arrested him and, at the police station, "ordered [him] to take his clothes off in a humiliating manner while officers around him ridiculed and laughed at [him]."

In his lawsuit, Kevin Ali, said that on October 12, 2012 he was a passanger in his friend Adele Perdue's car which was pulled over by Montclair police.  According to the complaint, Ali got out of the car and the officers ordered him back into the car and then ordered him out of the car to arrest him.  He said that he was charged with Disorderly Conduct and Obtructing Administration of Law or Government Function.  At the police station, he alleged that he was ordered to take his clothes off while officers ridiculed him.  Ali claimed that he was ultimately found not guilty of both charges.

The complaint lists the two officers involved only by their last names--Locklear and Russo.  Locklear is presumably Christopher Locklear, who presently holds the rank of Sergeant.  According to DataUniverse, Montclair employs two police officers with the surname Russo--Vincent D. Russo and Christopher A. Russo.  It is unknown which officer is the defendant in this lawsuit.  Police Chief David Sabagh, who recently retired, is also named as a defendant. 

The case is captioned Ali v. Township of Montclair, et al, Superior Court Docket No. ESX-L-7172-14 and Ali's attorney was Randy P. Davenport of Piscataway.  Case documents are on-line here and the lawsuit exhibits are on-line here.

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 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 Montclair or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Ali $30,000 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.