Thursday, August 4, 2011

Egg Harbor Township pays $650,000 to settle police officer's whistle blower suit

On May 28, 2009, the Township of Egg Harbor (Atlantic County) agreed to pay $650,000 to a Township police officer who sued the Egg Harbor Police Department for retaliating against him after he reported suspected cheating on a sergeant promotional exam.

In his suit, Christopher Mozitis said after he took the sergeant promotional exam in 2005, he was "shocked" to learn that five other officers who "were definitely not the best and the brightest" had achieved the top five test scores. He further claimed that he had hear rumors that some of the top scorers had boasted "that they had been given access to a surreptitiously made audiotape recording of the sergeant's promotional exam oral test portions by the Key Schools."

Mozitis said that he after reported his suspicions to Captain John Pope and Chief John Coyle a "half-hearted" investigation was done. However, Mozitis alleged, Chief Coyle promoted one of the top scorers to sergeant prior to the investigation's completion.

Mozitis also alleged that after the test scores were known, Chief Coyle and other supervisors evaluated the candidates and "then manipulated the ultimate promotional list rankings based upon non-objective factors." In sum, Mozitis claimed, "favoritism was allowed to trump merit."

Mozitis claimed that his complaints about the testing process resulted in "a grotesquely hostile and retaliatory work environment." He claimed, for example, that police union shop steward Ray Theriault threatened to "kick his ass" when Mozitis confronted Theriault for failing to pursue his grievance.

Also named in the suit was Egg Harbor Police Captain Matthew Coyle who is Chief Coyle's brother.

The case is captioned Mozitis v. Coyle, Docket No. ATL-L-1936-06 and Mozitis's attorney was Clifford Van Syoc of Cherry Hill. Case documents are on-line here.

The settlement agreement contains a confidentiality clause which, curiously, states that it is not a "confidentiality agreement" but limits the parties' statements about the settlement to "The matter has been resolved to the satisfaction of the parties." 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 Mozitis's allegations have been proven or disproven in court. The settlement agreement resolution expressly states that the $650,000 payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by Egg Harbor or any of its officials. All that is known for sure is that Egg Harbor or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Mozitis $650,000 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.