Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Passaic County pays $150,000 to settle undersheriff's wrongful termination and defamation suit.

On January 4, 2008, the County of Passaic agreed to pay $150,000 to an undersheriff who had sued the County, Sheriff Jerry Speziale and others for wrongfully firing and defaming him.

In his suit, Felix Garcia, a Latino American who had worked for Passaic County since 1972, alleged that a search warrant, issued pursuant to an Attorney General's investigation, was served upon him on March 20, 2002. The warrant reportedly sought some checks that Garcia had written to Sheriff's Office employees to perform work at his home in 1995. Garcia claims that although he was innocent of any wrongdoing, Speziale, through a subordinate, told him that he would be fired unless he agreed to take an unpaid leave of absence until the Attorney Gerneral's office confirmed that it would not prosecute Garcia. Garcia, claiming to be intimidated and coerced, agreed to the unpaid leave of absence.

During his ten-month leave of absence, Garcia claims that he discovered that Speziale, who had become sheriff in January 2002, had taken retaliatory action against other sheriff's office employees who were Latino American or who had served under Speziale's precedessor. According to Garcia, this caused him to become involved in setting up a February 19, 2003 meeting where Speziale's alleged propensity to discriminate against Latino Americans could be discussed.

But, Garcia alleges, when Speziale learned of the meeting and Garcia's involvement with it, he fired him and had an attorney, Harley D. Briete, write him a February 16, 2003 letter that allegedly "contained numerous false and malicious allegations against Garcia, including . . . that the AG's Office had made 'preliminary findings' that Garcia had violated the law." He further alleges that the letter "referenced confidential materials from Garcia's personnel file, inlcuing . . . a psychological evaluation."

Garcia then accuses Speziale and Breite of distributing the February 16, 2003 letter to the media, wich resulted in the Herald News and The Record writing negative and embarrassing articles about him.

Finally, Garcia claims that another Sheriff's Office official, Robert D'Arco, wrote to the Division of Pensions and Benefits asking whether it was appropriate for Garcia to forfeit his pension. Garcia alleges that D'Arco sent the letter, which was said to contain "numerous fase and malicious" statements, at Speziale's direction and also sent copies to "each and every member of the Passaic County Board of Chosen Freeholders."

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.

The case is captioned Garcia v. County of Passaic, Federal Case No. 2:04-cv-00650 and Garcia's attorney was David W. Fassett of Chatham. Case documents are on-line here.

None of Garcia's allegations have been proven or disproven in court. The settlement agreement resolution expressly states that the $150,000 payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by Passaic or any of its officials. All that is known for sure is that Passaic or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Garcia $150,000 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.