Monday, April 4, 2011

Cedar Grove pays $8,000 to settle free speech lawsuit

On February 28, 2011, the Township of Cedar Grove (Essex County) agreed to pay $8,000 to a Millburn woman who sued the Township and its former mayor for refusing to let her speak during two Township Council meetings held in 2009.

In her suit, Janet Piszar, along with Verona resident Marilyn English, who both oppose the killing of deer as a way of managing deer population, said that they attended an April 6, 2009 public meeting of the Cedar Grove Township Council "to present arguments and evidence regarding the efficacy of deer kills and to encourage the Township to employ alternate methods." According to the lawsuit, Paul Lee, who was Mayor at the time, and several Council members "repeatedly interrupted Plaintiffs, refused to permit [them] to finish their comments and refused to allow Ms. Piszar to make her presentation regarding deer kills."

At a May 18, 2009 public meeting, Mayor Lee allegedly told the pair that "I am not listening to your comments" and accused Ms. Piszar of "denigrating" the Township and implied that unless Ms. Piszar left the podium, she would be arrested.

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 Piszar v. Cedar Grove, Superior Court Docket No. ESX-DC-34868-09 and Piszar's attorney was Walter M. Luers of Oxford. Case documents are on-line here.

None of Piszar's allegations have been proven or disproven in court. The settlement agreement resolution expressly states that the $8,000 payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by Cedar Grove or any of its officials. All that is known for sure is that Cedar Grove or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Piszar $8,000 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.