Thursday, November 15, 2012

Essex County pays $45,000 of $280,000 to settle New Year's party-goers' police beat-down suit.

On September 4, 2012, the County of Essex agreed to pay $45,000 to a Germantown, Maryland couple who sued a Sheriff officer and a Newark Police officer for allegedly beating them and arresting them without probable cause.

In their suit, Morgann Schultz and Lya Barbosa, who are husband and wife, said that they attended a New Year's Eve party at the Robert Treat Hotel at 50 Park Place in Newark on December 31, 2008.  They claimed that they had booked a room at the hotel so that "they could celebrate the coming of the New Year responsibly and safely."

The couple claimed that at about 3:30 a.m., they were in a hotel elevator with several friends "singing and chanting in Portuguese, dancing and blowing noise makers," when Ronald Rumsby and Bazeek Burgess (also referred to as Bazyt Bergus), who were employed, respectively, as an Essex County Sheriff's officer and a Newark Police officer, and who also worked as hotel security, entered the elevator.  According to the complaint, both Rumsby and Burgess were wearing civilian clothes that bore no indication of their status as hotel security or law enforcement officers.

As the elevator began to move, Burgess asked the crowd in the elevator to quiet down.  In response, Schultz "responded by tooting a noise maker that he obtained from the hotel party.  Schultz admits that his response was "a juvenile act and a bit obnoxious."  The couple alleged that Rumsby said "Give me that f***ing thing," as he tried to forcible take the noise maker from Schultz.  In response, Schultz demanded to see a "f***ing badge."

At this point, the complaint alleges, Burgess and Rumsby "began to assault" Schultz and, when Barbosa stepped in to help, Rumsby "grabbed [her] forcefully about the arms and threw her out of the elevator."  Rumsby then allegedly "pulled out a gun [and] pistol whipped Plaintiff Morgann Schultz about the head and face."  The two officers allegedly pushed Schultz back into the elevator and struck him "with their fists, knees and feet."

Schultz claimed to receive "six facial bone fractures, including two nasal bone fractures and various right eye orbital fracture."  He also claims to have suffered a concussion, breathing difficulties and blurred vision in his right eye."  Barbosa claimed to receive bruises on her head, arms and body.

The couple alleged that Rumsby and Burgess filed "false criminal complaints" against them, which were later dismissed, but which required Schultz to spend 4 days in jail.

The case is captioned Schultz and Barbosa v. Ronald Rumsby et al, Federal Case No. 2:10-cv-6570 and Schultz's and Barbosa's attorney was Raoul Bustillo of Jersey City.  Case documents are on-line here

In addition to the $45,000 paid by Essex County, the other defendants (e.g. the Robert Treat Hotel) paid the couple $235,000.

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.

None of Schultz's and Barbosa's allegations have been proven or disproven in court. The settlement agreement resolution expressly states that the  payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by Essex County, the hotel, or any of their officials and employees. All that is known for sure is that Essex County or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Schultz and Barbosa  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.