Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Linden and Roselle together paid out $35,833.34 to settle a lawsuit filed by woman who claimed police excessive force.

On October 12, 2017, the final signature was affixed to a settlement agreement under which the City of Linden and the Borough of Roselle (both in Union County) agreed to pay $35,833.34 to a Roselle Park woman who said that City and Borough police applied excessive force upon her.  Of the total, $21,666.66 was paid by Roselle and $14,166.68 was paid by Linden.

In their lawsuit, Elizabeth Drada and David Vega (Vega withdrew from the lawsuit on October 6, 2017) said that on November 17, 2013, they, along with Emanuel Rivera, left a Wood Avenue, Roselle bar and restaurant at about 11:30 p.m. after Vega "was asked to leave the bar by security despite the lack of any altercation or fight."  Drada and Vega said that they were "profiled" by security as "potential troublemakers" because of their Hispanic origin and because Rivera had a tattoo on the side of his neck that contained the word "King."

Drada and Vega said that they were walking toward their car, which was several blocks away, without being disorderly or aggressive when several police officers followed them and "began to verbally harass and abuse" them.  The officers allegedly said to them things such as "get out of here" and "don't come back here" and falsely stated in a police report that Drada and Vega acted in a disorderly manner.  One of the officers allegedly assumed that Drada, Vega and Rivera were gang members after seeing Rivera's tattoo.

For an unexplained reason, Rivera reportedly took off his shirt and Drada said that she was grabbed by the officers when she attempted to get Rivera to put his shirt back on.  At this point, Rivera, in an effort to protect Drada, allegedly "reach[ed] for [Drada] but ends up hitting a [police officer] in error."  Vega, who said that he was attempting to video record the altercation on his phone, said that one of the officers "smacked [the  phone] out of his hand" and confiscated it.  Meanwhile, Drada said that she was handcuffed and thrown to the ground so hard that she fractured her ankle. Drada said that after being searched by Odom, a female officer, Odom and another officer "picked her off the ground, flipping her into the car onto her stomach and twisting her ankle, compounding the injury." 

Drada said that she spent about eleven hours in a cell at the Roselle police station.  She said that Sergeant Barnes refused her repeated requests for medical assistance.  She said that she was made to hop on one foot in order to be fingerprinted and that a female officer eventually obtained an ambulance for her.  She said that the disorderly conduct and resisting arrest charges were dismissed when she entered a guilty plea to the municipal noise ordinance.

While the pair could not identify the officers at the scene, they said that they later learned that the Roselle officers who where at the scene and/or at the station were Sergeant Williams (presumably Stacey L. Williams), Sergeant Brian Barnes, Officer William Lord and Officer Odom (presumably Jaclyn R. Odom) and that the Linden Officers were James Edgar, P. Kudlac (presumably Patrik Kudlac), Mohr (presumably Jason Mohr) and Jedrezejewski (presumably Martin Jedrzejewski).

Also named as defendants were Roselle Police Chief Gerard Orlando and Linden Police Chief James M. Schulhafer. 

The case is captioned the Elizabeth Drada, et al v. Borough of Roselle, et al,  Federal Case No. 2:15-cv-08052 and Drada's attorney was Shelley L. Stangler of Springfield. Case documents are on-line here.

None of the the lawsuit's allegations have been proven or disproven in court. Settlement agreements typically state that payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing anyone.  All that is known for sure is that Linden and Roselle or their insurers, for whatever reason, decided to pay Drada $35,833.34 rather 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, November 15, 2017

Pennsauken school board paid out $500,000 to settle lawsuit filed by high school student who was slashed across her face on the school bus.

On June 15, 2017, the Pennsauken Board of Education (Camden County) agreed to pay $500,000 to a high school student who claimed that another student slashed her "across her face with a bladed weapon" on June 19, 2014 while she was on her school bus waiting to be taken home.  The alleged slasher, who also claimed damages in the suit, appeared to receive nothing.

In her suit, the female high school student identified only by her initials D.O. said that school officials were aware of the slasher's violent tendencies because the same assailant attacked her on school property two weeks earlier and that school officials had a video recording of that attack.  D.O. claimed that school officials ignored her "repeated pleas for protection."

According to a January 15, 2016 Courier Post article, D.O.'s accused attacker, identified in court papers by her initials S.C.A., sought damages from the school district because she claimed "she was the victim of unchecked bullying."  According to the article, S.C.A. claimed that D.O. was a “ringleader” for bullies who had targeted S.C.A.  While the redactions make it impossible to tell for sure, a July 17, 2017 release shows that someone--probably S.C.A.--released her claims in exchange for no payment.

Principal Tameka Matthews and Assistant Principal Thomas Honeyman were named as defendants in the lawsuit.

The case is captioned D.O. a minor by her guardian at litem, M.O. v. Pennsauken High School, et al, New Jersey Superior Court Docket No. CAM-L-361-15 and D.O.'s attorney was Norman M. Hobbie of Eatontown.  Case documents are on-line here

None of D.O.'s allegations have been proven or disproven in court. All that is known for sure is that the Pennsauken school district or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay the girl $500,000 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.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Evesham confidentially settled with fired cop.

On October 24, 2017, the Township of Evesham (Burlington County) agreed to allow a police officer who was fired effective November 8, 2016 to resign in lieu of being terminated  The agreement also allowed the former officer to keep $30,135.82 that the Township said the officer received while she was suspended.

According to her complaint, Officer Kathleen A. Portella was suspended with pay on November 8, 2016 after having been served with a Preliminary Notice of Disciplinary Action (PNDA). She was served with another PNDA on January 9, 2017. After four Department Level Hearings held in February and March 2017, she was issued a Final Notice of Disciplinary Action on July 21, 2017 which, according to Portella 's lawsuit, caused her to be terminated effective November 8, 2016.  Her lawsuit sought a Superior Court judge's review of the disciplinary matter and reinstatement to her job with back pay and seniority rights. 

Evesham Township contested Portella's suit and, in a counterclaim, sought to recover from her $30,135.82 it said it paid Portella between November 8, 2016 and July 21, 2017.

In the October 24, 2017 confidential agreement, both parties agreed that in lieu of being fired, Portella would be allowed to resign effective July 21, 2017 and keep the $30,135.82 that was paid to her during her suspension. As part of the settlement, Portella agreed to "not seek reemployment with Township in any capacity."

Nothing in any of the available paperwork explains the nature of the conduct that caused Portella to be fired.

According to a November 6, 2017 letter from the Township, Portella began her employment with Evesham on September 13, 2015 and was making $53,500 per year in 2017. 1

Both the Township and Portella agreed to keep the settlement "confidential to the maximum extent permitted by law." Fortunately, such confidentiality agreements are trumped by the public's right to know under the Open Public Records Act.

The complaint, counterclaim and settlement agreement, are online here. Portella was represented by Stuart J. Alterman of Marlton and the Township was represented by Elizabeth M. Garcia of Mount Laurel.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Brooklawn school board paid out $100,000 to settle a fourth grader's claim that she was incessantly bullied and denied access to her anti-anxiety meds.

On September 20, 2017, a judge approved a $100,000 settlement for a fourth grade girl who said that she was bullied so severely by other students that she was prescribed anti-anxiety medication that the school nurse refused to give her.  Her anxiety became so severe, her suit alleges, that she attempted to harm herself landing her in a crisis center.  The girl had attended the Alice Costello School which is operated by the Brooklawn (Camden County) Board of Education.

In her suit, the female student identified only by her initials J.R., said that in 2012, when she was a fourth grader at the Alice Costello School in 2012, three other students, also identified only by their initials, called her "a 'slut, 'bitch,' and 'f***ing whore' at least several times a week during [her] entire forth grade year."  According to the lawsuit, the girl's mother complained to her daughter's teacher who in turn relayed the complaint to former Superintendent John Kellmayer who allegedly "did not do anything to prevent the harassment."

By the time she entered the fifth grade, the alleged harassment by the three students worsened.  They allegedly added the terms "ugly" and "mother f***er" to their list of insults and starting slapping J.R. hard enough to make her fall to the ground.  The suit claims that the girl's gym teacher would not take her out of class so that she could be away from two of the harassers.

During fifth grade, J.R. said that her three tormentors took her to a secluded area of the playground and slapped her, punched her and kicked her in the groin.  They allegedly lifted her up and dropped her causing "causing significant bruising on her back and her knee."  Again, Kellmayer allegedly did nothing to stop the abuse and reportedly refused to meet with the girl's mother to discuss it.

The alleged harassment caused J.R. to take anti-anxiety medication that were, according to the lawsuit, to be administered by school nurse Jill Tourtual "whenever [J.R.] started to feel symptoms of her anxiety."  Tourtual allegedly refused to give J.R. her anxiety medication because she felt that J.R. "was using the anxiety pills as a 'crutch" and that her anxiety was not real and she was simply looking for attention."  Tourtual also reportedly told J.R. that she did not want her to become a "pill popper."

J.R. said that after being refused her medication, she became so anxious that "she would simply go into the bathroom by herself and cry."  J.R. claimed that in March 2014, her anxiety became so bad that she told Tourtual that "if she did not receive her medication she was going to harm herself."  According to the lawsuit, Tourtual continued to refuse J.R. her medication causing her to attempt to harm herself and require admission to a crisis center.

The case is captioned J.R. by her parent and guardian J.R. v. Brooklawn Board of Education, et al, New Jersey Superior Court Docket No. CAM-L-4761-14 and Smith's attorney was Kevin M. Costello of Mount Laurel.  Case documents are on-line here

According to a September 20, 2017 court order entered by Superior Court Judge Michael J. Kassel, J.R. and the school district resolved their claims for a a $100,000 settlement.  From that amount $49,745.91 was paid to J.R.'s attorney for costs and attorney fees.  The remainder was deposited with the Camden County Surrogate to be put in trust for her.

None of J.R.'s allegations have been proven or disproven in court. All that is known for sure is that the Brooklawn school district or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay the girl $100,000 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.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Sussex County confidentially paid out $1 (plus $15,000 in legal fees) to settle Social Services Administrator's hostile work environment lawsuit.

On March 9, 2017, the County of Sussex quietly paid a total of $15,001 to settle a 2015 lawsuit filed by the County's Administrator of the Division of Social Services who claimed that she was passed over for promotion and retaliated against for "advocating on behalf of a non-competent patient."

In her lawsuit, Carol Novrit said that she authored a January 13, 2015 letter that urged the Newton Memorial Hospital to not release a woman into her husband's care "because he was incapable of that care."  The letter, which allegedly caused the hospital to go "ballistic," also caused then Human Services Administrator Stephen Gruchacz to allegedly become extreme angry and to create a hostile work environment for Novrit.  When Gruchacz became County Administrator in July 2015, he allegedly passed over Novrit for the now vacant Human Services Administrator position and instead awarded the position to "a less-qualified individual with less experience."  Novrit claimed that the hostility against her also caused her to lose out on an appointment to the County Administrator position.

Novrit claimed that Gruchacz's elevation to County Administrator was approved by Freeholders Dennis J. Mudrick, Phillip R. Crabb and Richard A. Vohden because they felt that Gruchacz could insulate them from what Novrit called "widespread criticism" for the three Freeholders' support of a settlement agreement involving a solar contract.  Novrit alleged that her hostile work environment "was controlled" by former County Counsel Dennis McConnell until his retirement in 2015.  According to Novrit, McConnell's replacement, John Williams, "continued the hostile work environment, told [Novrit] she was suffering from anxiety, criticized her for 'shoving her resume in his face' and further stated, 'I thought there was something about you.'"

Also named in the lawsuit was former County Administrator John Eskilson.

The County's unwillingness to release this settlement is illustrated by a March 9, 2017 New Jersey Herald editorial entitled "Lawsuit settled? Or not? The answer is pending."

The case is captioned Novrit v. Sussex County Freeholder Dennis J. Mudrick, et al, Sussex County Superior Court Docket No. SSX-L-486-15 and the Novrit's attorney was George T. Daggett of Sparta.  Case documents are on-line here.

The settlement agreement contains a confidentiality clause, which prevents the parties to the suit from disclosing the settlement's terms to others, including the media.  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 the 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 Sussex or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that they would rather pay Novrit $15,001 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, October 20, 2017

Weehawken confidentially paid out $75,000 to settle senior woman's police brutality lawsuit.

Update:  The Hudson County Prosecutor, in response to an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request, disclosed on October 26, 2017 that Officer Robert Jacobson, who was charged with aggravated assault on October 27, 1999, was admitted into the Pretrial Intervention Program (PTI) on April 6, 2001 and successfully completed that diversionary program.  Click here for the Prosecutor's response.

Update: As of November 1, 2017, Officer Robert Jacobson is still employed by Weehawken as a patrolman at an annual salary of $115,327.  He was hired by Weehawken on January 17, 1995.
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On August 31, 2017, the Township of Weehawken (Hudson County) quietly agreed to pay $75,000 to a then 65-year old woman who said she was repeatedly struck, beaten and choked by a Township police officer.  Notably, the officer himself agreed to pay $5,000 toward the settlement.

In her lawsuit, Maria Tullo claimed that at about 8 a.m. on April 25, 2014 she was in her Maple Street home when police officer Robert Jacobson came onto her property and called her a "bitch" and a "Guinea c**t" and told her to "go back to your country."  According to the suit, Jacobson beat and choked Tullo which caused neighbors to call police when they heard her cries for help. Sergeant Hablitz (presumably Sergeant Conrad S. Hablitz) and Officers Christopher Majewski, Randy Hablitz and Edward Vion responded to the scene and reportedly, along with Officer James White, conspired to falsely charge Tullo with harassment.

Tullo alleged that she had previously tried four times to complain to police officials about Officer Jacobson but was each time turned away.  She said that the police department's refusal to take her complaints "empowered" Jacobson and contributed to his misconduct.  She alleged that the harassment complaint against her was ultimately dismissed.

Tullo also alleged that Jacobson was indicted in or about February 2000 for "a similar physical and brutal attack of a civilian." An Internet search revealed a February 29, 2000 article in the Hudson Reporter titled "Police Officer indicted on four counts of assault, weapon charges"  According to the article, these charges were filed against a Weehawken police officer named Robert Jacobson (presumably the same one who was the subject of Tullo's lawsuit) and arose out of an October 1999 fight at a Weehawken bar called Gennaro's.  The fight was between Jacobson, then 24, and a 58-year-old bar patron and reportedly arose out of heated words about a college football game and military service. According to the article, Jacobson hit the man with a beer bottle and the man required 40 stitches to repair his wounds.  Jacobson was reportedly intoxicated and fled the scene.

The case is captioned Tullo, et al v. Township of Weehawken, et al, Federal Case No. 2:16-cv-00348 and the Tullo's attorney was Jacqueline Ramirez of Fort Lee.  Case documents are on-line here.

The settlement called for $70,000 to be paid by the Township's insurer and the other $5,000 to be paid by Robert Jacobson personally.

The settlement agreement contains a confidentiality clause, which prevents the parties to the suit from disclosing the settlement's terms to others, including the media.  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 the 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 Weehawken's insurer and Jacobson, for whatever reason, decided that they would rather pay Tullo $75,000 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, October 5, 2017

Linden confidentially paid out $575,000 to settle a lawsuit by two men who claimed harm by a municipal judge who "evoked the specter of the backwater 'judge, jury and executioner' figure."

On April 12, 2017, the City of Linden (Union County) quietly agreed to pay $575,000 to two Elizabeth men who claimed that the Linden Municipal Judge's illegal sentences deprived them of due process and caused them to spend "approximately sixty (60) days more in jail than was permissible by law."

In their lawsuit, Wendell and Anthony Kirkland said that on April 12, 2010 they appeared before Linden Municipal Court Judge Louis M. J. DiLeo to be arraigned on charges arising out of their 2009 arrest for possession of 50 grams or less of marijuana and for stealing five lug nuts as well as the wheel to which the lug nuts were attached.  During the arraignment, the cousins said that they wanted to retain a private counsel to represent them.  According to the lawsuit, DiLeo "erroneously advised [them] that by electing to retain private counsel, they had 'waived' their rights to to appointment of a public defender."

At a May 3, 2010  court hearing, the Kirklands, who apparently were not able to secure private lawyers, said that they wanted to be represented by the public defender.  DiLeo allegedly told them that they were not permitted to be represented by the public defender because they had already "waived" that right.  DiLeo then allegedly told the pair that they needed to proceed to trial on May 12, 2010.

After waiting four hours for their trial on May 12, 2010, the Kirklands said that "there was no defense counsel or municipal prosecutor present" and that the only people participating in the trial were the Kirklands, the arresting police officer and Judge DiLeo.  DiLeo allegedly conducted the direct examination of the officer (who allegedly did not enter the marijuana or the lab reports into evidence) and the Kirklands were given an opportunity to cross-examine the officer.  DiLeo then asked the Kirklands if they had witnesses and the Kirklands said that they did have witnesses but that none of them were present.  DiLeo, who allegedly refused an adjournment so that the witnesses could be called in to testify, allowed the Kirklands to testify on their own behalf and then be cross-examined by the police officer.  After the officer's cross-examination, DiLeo reportedly questioned both the Kirklands and the officer.

At the conclusion of the 52-minute trial, DiLeo found the Kirklands guilty of all charges, including the marijuana possessory charge for which no evidence was reportedly submitted.  DiLeo then immediately sentenced Wendell Kirkland to 180 days in the Union County Jail, three consecutive one-year probationary terms and a $2,700 fine exclusive of statutory penalties and costs.  He sentenced Anthony Kirkland to two consecutive 180-day jail terms, three consecutive one-year probationary terms and a $3,100 fine exclusive of statutory penalties and costs.

According to the complaint, the Kirklands' sentences were illegal because N.J.S.A. 2C:43-2(b) only permits 90-day terms to be imposed as a condition of probation.  The men argue that the illegal sentences caused them to spend sixty days in jail beyond what the law allowed.

Union County Superior Court Judge Scott J. Moynihan heard the Kirklands' appeal.  According to the lawsuit, Moynihan characterized DiLeo's handling of the matter as a "'perversion of justice' and cited multiple instances in which DiLeo violated the [Kirkland's] constitutional rights" including the "most glaring error" of denying the Kirklands' request for a public defender.  Moynihan "concluded that Judge DiLeo had “transformed the role of the court from a neutral and detached magistrate and evoked the specter of the backwater ‘judge, jury and executioner’ figure that has never had any place in American jurisprudence.” He ultimately found both men not guilty of the marijuana charges and remanded the remaining charges to municipal court to be heard before a different judge.

The complaint alleged that the Kirklands' treatment by DiLeo was not an aberration but "a long standing custom" that developed during DiLeo's nine years on the bench.  The complaint alleges that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) once stepped in because of DiLeo's conduct on the bench.

According to a January 27, 2014 article in NJ Advance Media, DiLeo was reprimanded by the New Jersey Supreme Court for his treatment of the Kirklands. The Court's 42-page decision is on-line here.

The case is captioned the Wendell Kirkland and Anthony Kirkland v. Louis M. J. DiLeo, et al, Federal Case No. 2:2012-cv-01196 and the the Kirklands' attorney was Michael R. Rubas of Jersey City.  Case documents are on-line here.

The settlement agreement contains a confidentiality clause, which prevents the parties to the suit from disclosing the settlement's terms to others, including the media.  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 the lawsuit's allegations have been proven or disproven in court. Settlement agreements typically state that payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by DiLeo.  All that is known for sure is that Linden or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay the Kirklands $575,000 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.