Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Lavallette pays $75,000 to settle municipal judge's lawsuit against police

On April 23, 2013, the Borough of Lavallette (Ocean County) agreed to pay $75,000 to a Bridgewater Township Municipal Court judge who claimed that Lavallette police arrested him without probable cause after he declined to take a field balance test.  He also claimed that the arrest put him "in the throes of a full blow panic/anxiety attack" and that the police chief's quotes to the local press forced him to resign his position.

In his suit, Stanley F. Rizzolo, a municipal court judge who "aspired to the bench of the Superior Court of New Jersey," said that shortly before midnight on August 22, 2009, he was stopped by Lavallette Officer Andrew Baldino for slightly weaving in his lane of travel.  He said that after he "flawlessly performed two field sobriety tests" he told Baldino that he might have difficulty performing the balance test because of injuries to his back and ankle. Baldino apparently accepted Rizzolo's explanation and instructed him to wait in his vehicle.  According to the lawsuit, a very angry Officer Charles Russell then arrived on scene, berated Rizzolo and threatened him with arrest unless he did the balance test.  Rizzolo claimed that Sergeant John Andrews then arrived on scene and participated in the "menacing and antagonizing."

Rizzolo claimed that he was then handcuffed and placed in a patrol car and taken to the police station where he was told to take a breathalyzer.  The stress from this allegedly caused him to go into a panic attack, which is a condition he said he suffered from prior to this incident.  The officers, however, "cynically believed [Rizzolo] was feigning illness to avoid taking the breathalyzer" and "openly disparaged" him.  He claimed that Russell gave him oxygen which caused him to lose consciousness and that later, in the hospital, he required physical restraints and chemical sedation due to his "uncontrollable shaking and hyperventilation." While sedated, blood was drawn that allegedly revealed a blood alcohol concentration of .068% which, according to the lawsuit, was "well below the 0.08 level of impermissible intoxication established by [law.]"  Finally, he claimed that Police Chief Colin Grant gave "skewed account of the events" to local newspapers which ultimately "forced him to resign from his municipal judgeship at great professional and financial cost."

The case is captioned Rizzolo v. Lavallette, Federal Case No. 11-cv-01033 and Rizzolo's attorney was Robert F. Varady of Union.  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 Rizzolo's allegations have been proven or disproven in court. The settlement agreement resolution expressly states that the $75,000 payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by Lavallette or any of its officials. All that is known for sure is that Lavallette or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Rizzolo $75,000 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.