Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Lavallette zoning/code enforcement official quietly resigns in exchange for three month's pay plus pay for accrued vacation and personal days.

In a July 16, 2018 "Full and Final Release Agreement," the Borough of Lavallette (Ocean County) agreed to pay its Zoning Official and Code Enforcement Officer $9,396.00 (which is "three (3) months of regular hours of work as salary"), less tax deductions, plus an additional $2,958.50 for accrued vacation and personal days in order to resolve "all disputed claims involving certain disciplinary charges" against the official.  The agreement does not specify the nature of the allegations upon which the charges were based and specifically states that the payment "is not an admission of liability or wrongdoing."

As his part of the agreement, Gary Royer, the former Borough official who received the settlement payments, agreed to submit an irrevocable letter of resignation, effective June 28, 2018, from his Lavallette positions of Zoning Official and Code Enforcement Officer as well as other positions he held in the Borough of Seaside Park.

Both Royer and the Borough agreed to "not discuss this settlement with anyone except to say that it has been resolved to the satisfaction" of both parties.  The Borough also agreed to tell prospective employers only that Royer had "resigned in good standing."

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Tuckerton paid out $50,000 to settle volunteer firefighter's retaliation lawsuit.

On January 31, 2017, the Borough of Tuckerton (Ocean County) agreed to pay $50,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by a former volunteer firefighter who claimed  that senior fire company officials retaliated against him after he refused a demand to stop speaking with a female firefighter who had been previously terminated from the fire company.

In his lawsuit,Matthew Puzio said that he chaired the fire company's Parade Committee in 2013 which endeavored to hold a holiday parade in December of that year.  Puzio said that Fire Chief Lewis Eggert, Sr., Assistant Chief Lewis Eggert, Jr. and President Charles Uhl were supportive of the idea of a parade and repeatedly told him to "run with it" until Uhl saw Puzio speaking with Janette Dominski, a former fire company member, who Puzio claimed had been "wrongfully terminated" from the fire company.  According to the lawsuit, "Uhl told [Puzio} in unambiguous terms that he was not to associate with Ms. Dominski because she was going to sue the fire company."

Puzio claimed that soon after he refused Uhl's demand to stop associating with Dominski, Eggert, Sr., Eggert, Jr. and Uhl began to harass and retaliate against him.  He claimed that the trio began to question every decision he made regarding the parade and that Uhl removed him from the Parade Committee two weeks before the parade's scheduled date.  When Puzio decided to run against Uhl for the position of fire company president, the trio of senior officers allegedly "falsely and publicly accused [Puzio] of intending to charge children to see Santa Claus at a parade related event and falsely and publicly accused [Puzio] of unilaterally deciding to include beer sales in the event all in an attempt to paint [Puzio] in a bad light to the Tuckerton Community."

Puzio also claimed that Chief Eggert entered onto Puzio's fenced property, stuck his head in Puzio's kitchen window and "began hollering" at him.  The senior Eggert also allegedly enlisted Puzio's neighbor to participate in the harassment by telling him that Puzio "badmouthed" him.  The neighbor allegedly retaliated by "gutting a deer in his front yard very close to [Puzio's] property line and allowing it to bleed out frightening [Puzio's] young son with the grotesque display."

When Puzio complained to Uhl and the Borough Council, Uhl allegedly responded by suspending him for "tak[ing] his complaints outside the Fire Company."  Uhl allegedly told Puzio that the suspension would continue until Puzio agreed to handle the matter within the company and without being represented by a lawyer.  Puzio said that he was suspended at a fire company meeting and that no notice had been given that his suspension was going to be discussed.  Several months later, Puzio received an e-mail advising him that "he had been terminated from the fire company by a vote of the members of the company, again without notice or any opportunity to be heard," according to the lawsuit.

The case is captioned Puzio v. Borough of Tuckerton, et al, Ocean County Superior Court Docket No. OCN-L-582-15 and Puzio' attorney was Sebastian B. Ionno of Pitman.  Case documents are on-line here.

According to the release, Puzio received $29,000 of the settlement amount with the remainder going to his attorney.  According to the Borough Council's February 6, 2017 resolution, the $50,000 was paid by the Ocean County Municipal Joint Insurance Fund.

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 Tuckerton or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Puzio $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, August 6, 2018

Female inmate's sex assault lawsuit against Edna Mahan women's prison settles for $35,000.

On June 1, 2018, the New Jersey Department of Corrections agreed to pay $35,000 to a female inmate who said that she was groped and sexually assaulted by male prison guards.

In her suit, Christine Bernat, an inmate at the Hunterdon County-based Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women, claimed that Senior Corrections Officer Erick Melgar "sexually assaulted" her by "groping her, pinching her nipples, kissing her, having her position herself in a sexual way, having her perform oral sex, and having her engage in unprotected intercourse."  He also allegedly threw ice at her and hit her with a ruler.

Bernat also claimed that Melgar was assisted by fellow Corrections Officer Janette Bennett who acted as a look-out when Melgar was in an inmate's cell.  According to Bernat's summary judgment opposition brief, Bennett "would laugh when assisting Melgar and would comment 'this is great, we get paid for this.'"

Bernat said that Edna Mahon Administrator William Hauck and other officials knew that Melgar was having sexual contact with female inmates prior to Bernat's 2009 arrival at the facility but failed to take preventative action.  Hauck vehemently denied this and claimed that the first he knew of any alleged sexual assaults was when he was notified by a staff psychologist.  He said that upon notification he immediately reassigned Melgar to another unit and began termination proceedings that ultimately resulted in Melgar's and Bennett's firing.

After Melgar was reassigned, Sergeant Jeffrey S. Ellis allegedly transmitted Melgar's messages to Bernat and Bennett allegedly convinced other inmates to make positive statements about Melgar in order to interfere with an investigation into Melgar's alleged conduct

Bernat claimed that her reporting of the incidents caused prison officials, including Sergeant Lance Johnson, to retaliate against her.  She alleged that Johnson told her that she would have to "take Officer Melgar's [censored word] out of her mouth" if she wanted the harassment to stop.

Also during Melgar's reassignment, Senior Corrections Officer Alfred E. Smalls allegedly "sexually assaulted" Bernat by kissing her and grabbing her breasts in a private bathroom reserved for correction officers.  Smalls then allegedly bribed Bernat "with prison perks and contraband."

Document filed with Bernat's lawsuit include a July 2013 Appellate Division decision  that upheld Smalls' December 30, 2010 termination from Edna Mahan. According to the decision, the main witness against Smalls was a female inmate identified only by her initials "C.B."  C.B. said that she kissed Smalls in an "officer's bathroom . . . where Smalls grabbed her breast."  She said that there were four incidents where the pair kissed and that she "made a joke out of" smelling like Smalls' cologne after one of the kissing incidents.  She said that Smalls gave her tobacco products that she sold to other inmates.

Smalls denied C.B.'s allegations and pointed to "a prior false allegations" that C.B. had made,  but Administrative Law Judge Laura Sanders found it "to have little probative weight."  Ultimately, Judge Sanders found C.B.'s credibility to be greater than Small's and recommended his removal.  The Civil Service Commission, over Small's objections, agreed and terminated Small's employment.

The case is captioned Bernat v. New Jersey Department of Corrections, et al, Federal Case No. 3:12-cv-02649 and Bernat's attorney was Jeffrey S. Mandel of Morristown.  Case documents are on-line here.

None of Bernat's allegations have been proven or disproven in court. Settlement agreements typically state that the $35,000 payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by the Department of Corrections or any of its officials.  (Note: According to the release, Melgar, Bennett and Smalls, in their individual capacities, were not released from Bernat's lawsuit.) All that is known for sure is that Ocean or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Bernat $35,000 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.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Buena confidentially paid out $125,000 to settle police excessive force lawsuit.

On July 27, 2017, the Borough of Buena (Atlantic County) agreed to pay $125,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by a Buena Vista Township man who claimed that two Borough officers roughed him up during a traffic stop and were laughing when he lay bleeding on the ground.

In his lawsuit, Warren J. Morris said that he was driving his car through Buena Vista Township on June 20, 2014 when he was stopped by Buena Borough police officers Sean Griffith and Jacob Apostle.  Morris said that he was fearful when the officers approached his car "because he did not know who these individuals were, they at no time identified themselves."  According to Morris, when he asked the officers to identify themselves, Griffin replied "It doesn't matter who we are."  Morris claimed that upon being told this, he demanded that a State Trooper be called to the scene.

Morris claimed that he was arrested for "obstruction" because he rolled his passenger window down only half way when Griffith demanded that it be rolled down all the way.  According to the lawsuit, Apostle punched Morris in the eye when he exited the vehicle in accordance with Griffith's order even though he did nothing to resist or provoke the officers.  Morris said that the punch caused him to lose consciousness and that he was dragged across the ground and pepper sprayed by Griffith.  He said that both officers were "standing behind their SUV type police vehicle laughing while working on something inside" while Morris was lying on the ground "with a good deal of blood on his right arm."

Morris was taken to the hospital where he was allegedly treated for "facial contusion, facial lacerations, subconjunctival hemorrhage to the eye, chemical conjunctivitis and a chemical burns."  He said that he was taken to the police station and given several motor vehicle moving and document-based summonses "all of which were issued without basis in fact."  Morris said that all of the charges were later dismissed by a Municipal Court Judge.

The case is captioned Morris v. Borough of Buena, et al, Atlantic County Superior Court Docket No. ATL-L-1281-16 and Morris' attorney was David R. Castellani of Northfield.  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 Buena or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Morris $125,000 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.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Perth Amboy school board confidentially paid $174,000 to settle Security Director's racial discrimination lawsuit.

On September 17, 2017, the Perth Amboy Board of Education (Middlesex County) quietly paid $174,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by its former Director of Security that claimed that the school board replaced him because he refused to hire Hispanic applicants who were less qualified than non-Hispanic applicants.

James Ferriter, who was described in the lawsuit as "a white male," said that he "was criticized by Hispanic [school board] members for hiring non-Hispanic individuals for security positions instead of Hispanic individuals even though the persons hired were more qualified for the positions."  He claimed that then Board member Israel Varela told another, Hispanic employee that the school district should "get our own kind" in here.  He claimed that after being informed that his contract was being renewed for the 2011-12 school year, former Superintendent Janine Caffrey recommended that his position be abolished causing his employment to end on August 31, 2011.  Ferriter claimed that his position was later filled by someone who he believed was "willing to recommend for hire individuals in accordance with the [school board's] discriminatory practices."

Ferriter's racial discrimination claims were mentioned in an October 9, 2014 newspaper article entitled "School workers say they were fired because they weren't Hispanic."  Bernice Marshall, whose similar claims were featured in the article, settled her lawsuit in 2015 for $170,000.

In addition to Caffrey and Varela, former Board member Kenneth Gonzalez and present member Obdulia Gonzalez were also individually named in the lawsuit.

The case is captioned Ferriter v. Perth Amboy Board of Education, et al, New Jersey Superior Court Docket No. MID-L-4554-13 and Ferriter's attorney was Phillip B. Linder of Edison.  Case documents are on-line here.  On October 3, 2017, Robert B. Woodruff of Scotch Plains, who apparently replaced Linder as Ferriter's attorney, filed a motion to compel the school board to pay the $174,000 settlement amount.

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 Ferriter'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 the Perth Amboy school district or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Ferriter $174,000 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.

Turnpike Authority paid out $500,000 to settle excessive force lawsuit against six State Troopers.

On April 13, 2018, the New Jersey Turnpike Authority paid $500,000 to settle a Piscataway couple's excessive force lawsuit against the New Jersey State Police.

In their complaint, Jermaine Rudd and his wife Louise Rudd claimed that on December 24, 2014, Mr. Rudd was arrested by Trooper Nitesh Patel who was assisted by other Troopers including Thomas Gamaro, Joe Villa, Oczkos Blazeg, Julio Mota and Gerrad Vega.  During the arrest, the Troopers allegedly "used excessive force, assaulted, battered and otherwise violently attacked Rudd while he was in police custody."  Unfortunately, the complaint does not provide any details regarding the nature of the alleged application of excessive force.

The minutes of the New Jersey Turnpike Authority's March 27, 2018 meeting, however, disclose that Mr. Rudd's claim arose out of a DWI motor vehicle stop on the Garden State Parkway and that Rudd claimed that Troopers used excessive force against him while he was in the back of a patrol vehicle.  Rudd also claimed that he fell in his cell at the old Bloomfield Barracks and then outside after he was released.  He claimed to have suffered a fractured left kneecap and several torn knee ligaments.

The Authority's minutes also disclose that the video of the alleged incident in the patrol vehicle was preserved while the video from the barracks was not, leading to a potential spoliation (i.e. the intentional, reckless, or negligent withholding, hiding, altering, fabricating, or destroying of evidence relevant to a legal proceeding) claim.  According to the minutes, Troopers Gamaro, Villa and Vega were dismissed from the lawsuit but claims were still pending against Troopers Patel, Mota and Oczkos when the settlement decision was made.

Mrs. Rudd's claim is based on her "loss of services, companionship and society of her husband." Patel is also accused in the lawsuit of filing a false police report.

The case is captioned Jermaine Rudd et al, v. State of New Jersey, et al, Middlesex County Superior Court Docket No. MID-L-5884-15 and the Rudds' attorney was Brian Schiller of Westfield.  The complaint and the release are on-line here.

None of the the Rudds' 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 the State or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay the Rudds $500,000 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, June 25, 2018

Mansfield Ambulance Corps confidentially paid out $195,000 to female EMT who claimed that supervisor grabbed her crotch.

On February 26, 2018, the Mansfield Township Ambulance Corps (Burlington County) agreed to pay $195,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by a former employee who claimed that her boss grabbed her vaginal area during an employee social event.

In her lawsuit, Michele Drangula, an Emergency Medical Technician with the ambulance corps, claimed that during a March 2015 employee social event at Nooks Pourhouse in Florence, Ryan Lewis, the corps' overall supervisor, came over to her table and "physically grabbed [her] vaginal area."  Drangula's lawsuit claimed that even after she protested this "unwanted and horribly inappropriate" conduct, "Lewis continued to attempt to grab [her] vaginal area." Drangula claimed that she did not report Lewis because of fear of retaliation.

She claimed that after this alleged incident, Lewis began to harass her in the workplace by making lewd and sexually charged comments.  On October 27, 2016, there was another staff social event at O'Connor's American Bar and Grille in Eastampton at which Lewis, according to the lawsuit, demanded that Drangula give him a ride home.  She alleged that she "felt powerless to refuse the supervisor a ride home."  When they arrived at Lewis' home, Drangula claimed that he said "I want you to pull out of the driveway so I can f**k you."  After Drangula protested and tried to get Lewis out of the vehicle, he allegedly said "I remember what your pu**y felt like and wanted to play with it again."  When she shouted "GET OUT!," Lewis allegedly responded "So, you're not cool with this?"  Drangula said that her shouting worked to get Lewis to leave the vehicle "likely [because he] feared awakening his wife and children in his home."

Drangula claimed that Lewis' pervasive harassment forced her to resign on January 14, 2017.

Of the $195,000, Drangula received $128,666.67 and her attorney received the remainder.

The case is captioned Drangula v. Mansfield Township Ambulance Corps, et al, Docket No, BUR-L-1096-17 and Drangula's attorney was Patrick F. Carrigg of Lawrenceville.  Case documents are on-line here.

In her response to an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request for the settlement agreement, Mansfield Township Clerk Linda Semus wrote that "although the Ambulance Corp is a not-for-profit organization, the Township's Joint Insurance Fund provided coverage."

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 the Mansfield Ambulance Corps or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Drangula $195,000 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.