Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Hackensack pays $67,500 to settle police officer's retaliation lawsuit

On May 15, 2012, the City of Hackensack (Bergen County) agreed to pay $67,500 to a Hackensack police officer, who also served in the New Jersey National Guard, who claimed that he was retaliated against for not supporting candidates favored by Police Chief C. Kenneth Zisa and for claiming benefits under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA).

In his suit, Alexander Lopez-Arenas accused Chief Zisa of "using his office of Chief of Police . . . to extort monies from police officers to support his candidacies" as well as the candidacies of others, favored by Zisa, who ran for public office or for positions within the local Policemen's Benevolent Association.  He claimed that police officers "who did not financially support Zisa's [preferred] candidates . . . were retaliated against."

Lopez-Arenas said that from the time he was hired in 2003, Sergeant Anthony Trezza told him "that if he wanted things to work out for him on the job that it was in his best interest to contribute to Chief Zisa's electoral campaigns. In effect if he wanted to proceed up the ranks he needed to contribute." He also claims that while on duty, he and other officers were "compelled to travel around the City . . . removing campaign signs of Zisa opponents and replacing them with those supportive of Defendant Zisa."

He claimed that in 2004 and again in 2008, he was called up to serve in active duty in Cuba and Iraq.  Yet, when he returned and tried to claim his benefits he was due under the USERRA, he was allegedly demoted to "a walking post."  When he complained to Lieutenant John Heinemann, he was allegedly told that he shouldn't "push the issue."

He also claimed that he used to date a female Hackensack police officer and that this officer, after a breakup, started dating Deputy Chief Frank Zisa, who is Chief Zisa's brother. Lopez-Arenas said that Frank Zisa ordered him to stay away from his girlfriend and that Lopez-Arenas "understood that even the slightest breach of this order would result in retaliation in the workplace."

Also named in the suit were Trezza, Heinemann and Frank Zisa.

The case is captioned Lopez-Arenas v. Hackensack, Federal Case No. 2:10-cv-02668 and Lopez-Arenas's attorney was Robert B. Woodruff of Morristown.  Case documents are on-line here.

None of Lopez-Arenas's allegations have been proven or disproven in court. The settlement agreement resolution expressly states that the $67,500 payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by Hackensack or any of its officials. All that is known for sure is that Hackensack or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Lopez-Arenas $67,500 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.