Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Belmar pays $7,500 to settle police excessive force suit

On October 10, 2012, the Borough of Belmar (Monmouth County) agreed to pay $7,500 to a Bradley Beach man who sued members of the Belmar Police Department for allegedly beating and choking him.

In his suit, Jason Bernardinello said that on July 25, 2009, when he was 19 years old, he and some friends were riding their bicycles on Ocean Avenue at about 10 p.m.  He said that Special Officer whose name was stated in the lawsuit as "Sean Bowers" (but who is presumably Shawn Bowens or perhaps Sean Bowens) grabbed one of his friends' bicycles, tackled the friend from behind, "slammed [him] violently" and handcuffed him.  Thereafter, while Bernardinello was allegedly having a "civil discussion" with another office, Bowens reportedly screamed "Get the f**k out of here" to him.

Bernardinello claimed that when he tried to "respectfully and calmly respond," Bowens grabbed his throat and started choking him and shoved his head into a light pole.  He claims that four other officers jumped on him and "pummeled him while he lay, defenseless on the ground, punching him in the face and the groin while bystanders pleaded with the special cops to stop the beating."

Bernardinello further claims that he was detained at police headquarters for two hours and the officer on desk duty, who "was highly intoxicated," refused to let his parents see him.

The case is captioned Bernardinello v. Belmar, Federal Case No. 3:11-cv-0413 and Bernardinello's attorney was Dan A. Druz of Belmar.  Case documents are on-line here.

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 Bernardinello's allegations have been proven or disproven in court. The settlement agreement resolution expressly states that the $7,500 payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by Belmar or any of its officials. All that is known for sure is that Belmar or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Bernardinello $7,500 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.

Winslow Board of Education pays $32,400 to settle IDEA attorney fee claim.

On September 12, 2012, the Winslow Township (Camden County) Board of Education agreed to pay $32,400 to a not-for-profit law firm that successfully represented a 12-year0old disabled student in an action under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

In his suit, the twelve year old Sicklerville student, identified only by his initials "P.B.," who had been diagnosed with "Autism Spectrum Disorder with features closely aligned to Asperger's Syndrome" wanted to continue to attend Yale Academy, in Cherry Hill, while the school district wanted him to attend its own in-district class for disabled students.

After several hearings before the New Jersey Office of Administrative Law, including a due process trial that spanned six days, Administrative Law Judge Patricia M. Kerins concluded "that Winslow has failed to provide P.B. with a free appropriate public education . . . [and the school board's] program is not individualized to P.B.'s unique needs and is not designed to provide him with meaningful educational benefit."

Thereafter, the law firm representing P.B. sued the Winslow school board for $31,935 it said that it earned in attorney fees for representing P.B. in the litigation.  Specifically, the firm claimed $150 per hour for 212.9 hours spent on the case.

After further litigation, the law firms fees rose to $36,000, but the firm agreed, in order to settle the case, to take 90% of that amount, which is $32,400.

The case is captioned P.B. v. Winslow Township Board of Education, Federal Case No. 1:12-cv-01225 and P.B.'s attorneys were Sean M. Benoit and W. Emmett Dwyer of Disability Rights New Jersey of Trenton.  Case documents are on-line here.

None of P.B.'s allegations have been proven or disproven in court. The settlement agreement resolution expressly states that the $32,400 payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by Winslow or any of its officials. All that is known for sure is that Winslow or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay P.B. $32,400 than take the matter to trial.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Wayne pays $220,000 to settle zoning and discrimination lawsuit

On August 23, 2012, the Township of Wayne (Passaic County) agreed to pay $220,000 to a local car wash/quick lube center and its owner.  In its lawsuit, the car wash, Wayne Auto Spa, which advertises itself as being "environmentally responsible" claimed that the Township "unlawfully targeted [its] efforts to install a wind powered electric system on its premises.  The Auto Spa's owner, Robert Burke of Morristown, alleged that Wayne officials subjected him to "invidious discrimination" because of "his outspoken advocacy for the wind energy system." 

Burke alleged that he was the campaign manager for William Brennan, who challenged Council incumbent and Planning Board member Paul Margiotta in an election.  He claimed that his support of Brennan resulted in the Council and Planning Board taking action to "impede, frustrate and prohibit the Wayne Auto Spa application for approval of a proposed wind energy system."

Burke claimed that Joseph Connolly of Wayne, who is a retired Bergen County Sheriff's Officer, opposed his wind energy proposal and threatened him.  Specifically, Burke claimed that Connolly e-mailed him that "I will come back and see you about this.  I expect you to get the point this time around."

Burke also claimed that Connolly came to the Auto Spa, flashed his Sheriff's badge and told him "I will kick your ass" unless he stopped pursuing his wind energy application.  The threats, he claimed, were not investigated by the Wayne Police Department or the Passaic County Prosecutors's Office despite his repeated requests.

Burke further claimed that the Wayne Police Department "began stopping patrons of Wayne Auto Spa who were making or attempting to make left turns," which Burke said are legal, into his business.  This, according to Burke, was the police department's attempt to intimidate and harass his customers.

During an October 20, 2011, "sealed settlement conference" before U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge Joseph A. Dickson, Burke and Wayne Auto Spa agreed to a) accept $220,000 as a settlement amount, b) not disclose the amount of the settlement to anyone, c) not disparage Wayne or its officials and d) to not file any more Open Public Records Act (OPRA) requests regarding any matters relating to his lawsuit.  The settlement was made contingent upon the failure of a legal challenge to Burke's application to the Planning Board for permission to install his wind turbine system.   The transcript from the October 20, 2011 conference, together with a transcript of another conference held on October 24, 2011, are on-line here.

Fortunately, however, confidentiality provisions, such as the one agreed to in this case, 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 Burke v. Wayne, Federal Case No. 11-cv-1066 and Burke's attorney was, at least initially, R. William Potter of Princeton.  The lawsuit is on-line here and the settlement agreement is here.  The resolution under which the Township Council accepted the settlement is on-line here.

None of Burke's or Wayne Auto Spa's allegations have been proven or disproven in court. The settlement agreement resolution expressly states that the $220,000 payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by Wayne or any of its officials. All that is known for sure is that Wayne or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Burke and Wayne Auto Spa $220,000 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.

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.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

NJDEP pays $22,500 to settle employment discrimination suit

On August 22, 2012, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) agreed to pay $22,500 to a Lambertville woman who claimed that NJDEP officials discriminated against her based on her gender and displayed hostility toward her.

In her suit, Martha Goodwin said NJDEP Bureau Chief, Robert Soboleski, and Section Chief, Donald Kakas, created a hostile work environment for her from 2006 through 2009.  She alleged "a general pattern of adverse actions and undermining female employees." She claimed that employee Thomas Gryzmski, who allegedly "had a reputation of causing havoc wherever he worked in the NJDEP" did not like have a female supervisor and would begin "loud soliloquies" and "loud tirades" in front of others but that Soboleski and Kakas "never told him to stop."

The alleged hostility culminated on February 24, 2009 when Soboleski allegedly told a co-worker about Goodwin that "that f***ing c**t is dead meat. Her days are numbered."  She alleged that the conduct to which she was subject caused her to suffer depression and that her attempts to be reassigned to another bureau were not honored.

The case is captioned Goodwin v. NJDEP, Federal Case No. 11-cv-4236 and Goodwin represented herself in the lawsuit. Case documents are on-line here.

None of Goodwin's allegations have been proven or disproven in court. The settlement agreement resolution expressly states that the $22,500 payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by NJDEP or any of its officials. All that is known for sure is that NJDEP or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Goodwin $22,500 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.