Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Perth Amboy confidentially paid out $125,000 to settle former police officer's racial harassment lawsuit.

On August 8, 2018, the Perth Amboy (Middlesex County) City Council resolved to pay $125,000 to a now retired police officer who said that he was subjected to racial slurs and racial discrimination.

In his lawsuit, Stephen Petrosino, who described himself as being "of African-American and Caucasian decent [sic]," claimed that other Perth Amboy police officers called him "half-breed" at least once a week since he started working as a City police officer in 1992.  Petrosino alleged that "Sgt. Montalvo" (presumably Sergeant Andy Montalvo) would call him a "thumbprint" during roll call and "blacky black" on other occasions.  Other officers, who were overwhelmingly Caucasian, according to the lawsuit, would join in when Montalvo would call Petrosino derogatory names during roll call.

"Lt. Killane" (presumably Lieutenant Steve Killane) allegedly told Petrosino, in response to his complaints about Montalvo's comments, that "one day [Petrosino] was white and that the next day [Petrosino] was black."

Petrosino claimed that other officers placed "pictures of two of the Little Rascals, specifically Buckwheat and Stymie, . . . with captions stating that it was Officer Petrosino and Officer Rogers, an officer of African-American decent [sic]."

Petrosino retired in 2017 and collects a $64,279 "special" pension annually, according to DataUniverse.  His final salary for the City was $107,880.

The case is captioned Petrosino v. Perth Amboy Police Department, et al, Docket No. MID-L-442-16 and Petrosino's attorney was Kevin M. Costello of Mount Laurel. 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 Perth Amboy or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Petrosino $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.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Vineland quietly paid out $425,000 to settle detective's whistleblower lawsuit.

On August 20, 2018, the City of Vineland (Cumberland County) agreed to pay $425,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by a police detective who claimed that he was retaliated against for reporting another detective's alleged act of warning a fugitive that undercover police officers were going to search his residence.

In his lawsuit, Richard Burke said he discovered evidence that Detective Shane Harris "hindered a fugitive investigation by warning the fugitives that Vineland police officers were outside [the fugitive's] residence and described their undercover cars to the fugitive as well as providing advice to the fugitive to refuse a search of his residence."  Burke claimed that he later learned that "Harris' daughter was dating one of the fugitives involved in the investigation and that her vehicle was used to flee from Vineland Police Officers [and that one of the fugitives attempted] to strike Sergeant Steven Triantos with Detective Harris' daughter's vehicle."  He also claimed that Harris' mother hid the fugitive in her home.

Despite reporting his findings to his superiors, including Captain Rudolph Beu, Captain Thomas Ulrich, Sergeant Steven Triantos and Sergeant Leonard Wolf, Burke claimed that no action was taken against Harris.  Rather, Uhrich "threatened to suspend [Burke] if he continued to complain about Harris' conduct," according to the lawsuit.

Burke said that his efforts to hold Harris accountable led to a "steady barrage of retaliation" from his superiors including being demoted, being denied sick time and personal days, having his car taken away and being called "a rat."

As part of the settlement, Burke agreed to "retire his position as an officer with the City of Vineland Police Department effective August 31, 2018 due to work related disability injury."

The case is captioned Burke v. City of Vineland, Cumberland County Superior Court Docket No. CUM-L-649-15 and Burke's attorney was Louis Barbone of Atlantic City.  The complaint and settlement agreement 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 Vineland or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Burke $425,000 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.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Tuckerton paid out $65,000 to settle female volunteer firefighter's sexual harassment and retaliation lawsuit.

On April 6, 2016, the Borough of Tuckerton (Ocean County) agreed to pay $65,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by a former female volunteer firefighter who claimed that senior fire company officials retaliated against her after a Fire Captain, who was the Fire Chief's son, broke off an "intimate relationship" with her.

According to her lawsuit, Janette Dominski, who became a probationary member of the Tuckerton Volunteer Fire Company in the Fall of 2012, began an "intimate relationship" in December 2012 with Lewis E. Eggert, Jr. who was a Fire Captain and son of Fire Chief Lewis E. Eggert, Sr. "Despite their agreement to keep their intimate relationship separate from their positions with [the] Fire Company, on or about December 30, 2012, Captain Eggert kissed [Dominski] while at the fire house where he pushed Plaintiff against the fire truck," according to the lawsuit.

Dominski claimed that Captain Eggert "became distant" with her in January 2013 and told her "that they should end their relationship because he did not want to put [Dominski] through what his family put his ex-girlfriend Hannah through."  According to the civil complaint, Hannah was a former member of the fire company "and was forced out . .  very similar to the way [Dominski] was ultimately forced to leave."  Captain Eggert, who lived with his parents at the time, told Dominski that he had a conversation with his father about the "Hannah situation" and wanted to "spare her," according to the complaint.

Shortly after their relationship ended, Dominski claimed that Captain Eggert "clearly threatened" her position and that photographs that she had taken of a fire scene and shared with her Facebook friends "became an issue."  The photos were of a December 18, 2012 fire at Mystic Island.  Fire Company President Charles Uhl told her at the time that she could not take pictures because they "were at a potential crime scene" but that Dale Eggert, who was senior to Dominski, "shrugged it off" when Dominski told him about the photos, according to the lawsuit. Dominski claimed that she did remove the photos from her Facebook account after speaking with Dale Eggert.  Dominski alleged that on January 18, 2013, Chief Eggert sent her an e-mail telling her that her photo-taking was "a dead issue. Nothing was done wrong."

On January 31, 2013, Dominski said that she was accused by Captain Eggert, President Uhl and others of attending a Fire Academy graduation when she was actually standing by at the fire station studying for her classes.  When she denied that she attended the graduation, Captain Eggert, President Uhl and the others "continued to bully and humiliate" her.  Eggert allegedly told her that she "had become quiet and secretive" and was "going to be out."

According to the lawsuit, Dominski was relieved of her duties by Chief Eggert after his son, Captain Eggert, told him that she "had symptoms of asthma in cold weather in the past and that this information was not noted on her member application."  Dominski claimed that she did indeed have such symptoms as a child but hadn't suffered from them in years and that her doctor, who knew about her past asthma, didn't list those symptoms on her membership application because it was so long ago.

Dominski claimed that she was required to undergo a second medical examination at her own expense.  She alleged that no other member was required to undergo a second exam except for Hannah, who allegedly also had an intimate relationship with Captain Eggert and left the department because of harassment she suffered.

When she complained about the harassment to Chief Eggert, he summoned her to a February 3, 2013 meeting and told her that "he was upset with his son and found it dishonest that he did not learn about [his son's] relationship [with Dominski] sooner."  Because he was upset, Chief Eggert allegedly said that he "had changed his mind about the" fire scene photos that Dominski had taken in December and threatened to bring charges against her.  Eggert allegedly told Dominski that she would be "bounced" at the next firehouse meeting.

According to the lawsuit, Uhl conducted a hearing regarding disciplinary charges brought against Dominski at the March 5, 2013 meeting.  The hearing, which Dominski described as a "kangaroo court," resulted in the continuance of Dominski's suspension and a one-year extension of her probationary period.

In June 2013, Dominski claimed that there was a notice taped to her gear locker that read "JANETTE DOMINSKI LEAVE THE BUILDING IMMEDIATELY AND DO NOT RETURN UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE. Lee Eggert, Chief."  After seeing the notice and returning home, Dominski claimed that a police officer was at her house who informed her that she may have violated the law by possessing a prescription inhaler that Dominski had claimed belonged to her son.  Chief Eggert had called police after he "saw an inhaler in [her] equipment bag . . . that had an old expiration date and had no prescription label," according to the lawsuit. In a letter, Chief Eggert allegedly informed Dominski that she was "terminated from membership in the Tuckerton Volunteer Fire Company No. 1 effective immediately."

The case is captioned Dominski v. Borough of Tuckerton, et al, Ocean County Superior Court Docket No. OCN-L-2952-14 and Dominski's attorney was Sebastian B. Ionno of Pitman.  Case documents are on-line here.

Of the $65,000 settlement, Dominski received $38,324.56 and her attorney received the remaining $26,675.44.  Tuckerton also agreed to pay an undetermined amount of mediation costs.

Dominski also agreed to "simply state that the matter is resolved and dismissed and that she has no further comment" if "she is contacted by any member of the news media or any third party seeking comment on the status of the litigation and the settlement herein."  She also agreed to not "seek in any way to be reinstated, re-employed or hired by the Defendants in the future."

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 Dominski $65,000 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: Dominski's lawsuit was mentioned in another lawsuit filed against the Tuckerton Fire Company that is reported on here.)

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.