Wednesday, November 18, 2009

East Orange paid out a total of $75,000 to settle two intertwined lawsuits

In May 2007, Keith Hinton, then a East Orange Police Sergeant, accepted $50,000 to pay his lawyer, Algeier Woodruff, P.C. of Morristown, for legal services performed on a suit Hinton had filed against the East Orange Police Department and several police officials. The lawsuit and settlement agreement are on-line here.

In August 2007, Angelic (Angel) Muhammad of East Orange, accepted $25,000 to settle her lawsuit against the department and several police officials. Muhammad was also represented by Algeier Woodruff, P.C. The lawsuit and settlement agreement are on-line here.

Both lawsuits are summarized in the following article published in the October 13, 2004 Star Ledger.

Woman accuses police of sex assault - Prosecutor reviewing E. Orange allegations

Star-Ledger, The (Newark, NJ) - Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Author: Kevin C. Dilworth And Margaret Mchugh, Star-ledger Staff

An East Orange woman has filed a federal civil lawsuit accusing the police chief and seven other officers of sexually assaulting her over the past 20 years.

Angelic (Angel) Muhammad, 36, of North Arlington Avenue, near Summit Street, claims she was forced to perform sexual acts in exchange for not being charged with "phony or false charges."

The assaults, "well known throughout the department," began when Muhammad was 16 and continued until this year, according to a lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court in Newark.

Besides Chief Charles Grimes, the officers named in the suit are Lt. Michael Brown, retired Capt. Michael Palardy, Sgt. Gary Kelshaw, just retired Capt. Walter Jetter, officer Steven Sims, officer James Smith and Capt. James O'Toole.

Unspecified sexual acts were performed in East Orange police vehicles, inside police headquarters and inside some of the private homes of police officers, according to the lawsuit.

Muhammad, a former drug abuser who does not have a job, never filed a police report or criminal complaint over the last two decades, said Muhammad's attorney, Robert Woodruff of Morristown.

However, Muhammad's allegations are now being reviewed, Charlotte Smith, an executive first assistant prosecutor with the Essex County Prosecutor's Office in Newark, said yesterday.

"There's an ongoing investigation by our office's sex crimes unit and professional standards unit, regarding alleged acts by East Orange police officers," Smith said.

Patrick Toscano, a Nutley attorney representing Grimes, dismissed Muhammad's accusations against the chief as being unfounded.

"Charles Grimes' reputation, as one of the finest chiefs of police in the state of New Jersey, precedes him," Toscano said. "His character among law enforcement circles is impeccable.

"The plaintiff alleges she has been the victim of myriad sexual assaults over an approximately 20- year period, without ever reporting same to any law enforcement agency," Toscano said. "Such a position, by its very nature, is incredible. The complaint that she has filed includes numerous misstatements and blatant (falsehoods)."

Jason Holt, East Orange's head city attorney, declined comment on Muhammad's suit because the city has not yet been formally served with it.

Muhammad's attorney, Robert Woodruff of Morristown, said his client had not come forward before because she was scared to death, did not believe anyone would take her seriously, and did not know until recently that she could sue. He described Muhammad as being simple-minded, unmarried and the mother of two children now approaching adulthood.

"They threatened her with various disorderly persons offenses," Woodruff said of the eight police officers accused of sexually assaulting Muhammad. "Nothing serious, such as any first- or second-degree crimes."

Muhammad's suit - officially filed Oct. 6, assigned to U.S. District Court Judge G. Donald Haneke for pretrial, and to U.S. District Court Judge Joseph A. Greenaway Jr. for trial - are intertwined with other recent lawsuits alleging misconduct in the East Orange Police Department.

On Oct. 1, Sgt. Keith Hinton filed a suit accusing police brass of passing him over for promotions because he refused to pay cash to get promoted and because he also aired allegations of misconduct within the department.

In Hinton's case, the department, Grimes, Lt. Paul Davis, Sgt. Berkely (Tony) Jest, Lt. Sharon Mosby and former East Orange first assistant corporation counsel Lucas Phillips are named as defendants. It has been assigned to U.S. District Court Judge Patty Shwartz for pretrial and Judge Katherine S. Hayden for trial.

On Sept. 16, officer Norman Price, who is under indictment for stealing from the department and participating in a $100,000 computer equipment scam, sued police and other law enforcement officials - including members of the Essex County Prosecutor's Office in Newark - for allegedly conspiring against him and tainting evidence in his case.

Muhammad, Hinton and Price all know each other and Woodruff, the Morristown lawyer, is representing all of them.

Muhammad's lawsuit claims that three East Orange police internal affairs investigators, Mosby, Jest and Davis, tried to coerce her into accusing Hinton and Price of sexually assaulting her, too.

"They tried to get her to say that Price and Hinton were two of the people who had sex with her," Woodruff said. "She said, 'No, are you nuts?'"

Woodruff said Grimes was not chief at the time of his alleged assaults. According to the lawsuit, only two of the lawmen, Kelshaw and Jetter, assaulted Muhammad in the last two years.

None of Hinton's or Muhammad's allegations have been proven or disproven in court. The settlement agreements expressly state that the $50,000 and $25,000 payments do not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by the City or any of its officials. All that is known for sure is that East Orange and/or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that they would rather pay $50,000 and $25,000 than take the matters to trial. Perhaps East Orange's 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 East Orange 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.