Sunday, July 19, 2015

Belleville gives library worker promotion, back pay and $5,500 in attorney fees to settle her discrimination claim.

On June 29, 2015, the Township of Belleville (Essex County) and the Township's Library Board agreed to settle a library worker's discrimination lawsuit by promoting her and giving her a year's back pay and $5,500 in attorney fees.

In her suit, Angela Gionio-Kistner, a library monitor since 2011, said that her desire to be promoted to Library assistant as well as her pregnancy were discussed by the Library Board during a June 11, 2014 public board meeting altough the Board was allegedly required by the Open Public Meetings Act to discuss those matters in executive or closed session.  She claimed that the Library Board, because of her pregnancy and a desire to not pay for health insurance, wrongly decided to withhold her promotion.

The case is captioned Gionio-Kistner v. Belleville Public Library Board, et al, Superior Court Docket No. ESX-L-6457-14 and Gionio-Kistner's attorney was Brian J. Aloia of Bloofield.  Case documents are on-line here.

None of Gionio-Kistner's allegations have been proven or disproven in court. The settlement agreement resolution expressly states that the $5,500 and back pay payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by Belleville or any of its officials. All that is known for sure is that Belleville or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Gionio-Kistner $5,500 and back pay 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.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Franklin Fire District pays $200,000 to settle employee harassment/retaliation claim.

On July 10, 2015 the Franklin Township (Somerset County) Fire District No. 1 agreed to pay $200,000 to its former administrative aide who sued the Fire District and three District officials for creating a hostile work environment because of her previously filed and settled lawsuit against the Fire District centering on conduct allegedly committed by former District Board Chairman Robert R. Scheer, Jr.

By way of background, the former Administrative Aid, Deborah Nelson, sued the District, Millstone Valley Fire Department, Scheer and Commissioners James Wickman, Joseph Danielsen and William H. Cullen III on November 19, 2009.  That lawsuit, bearing Docket No. SOM-L-2127-09, is on-line here.  That lawsuit settled in May 2011 with Nelson receiving a payment of $150,000 and Robert Scheer agreeing to resign as a Millstone Valley auxiliary member, not seek membership in a District No. 1 fire company, not to run for Commissioner ever again and not to attend District and fire company events where Nelson will be present.  The settlement agreement is online here.

In her more recent lawsuit, filed on February 14, 2013 and bearing Docket No. SOM-L-232-13, Nelson said that after she filed her first lawsuit (which alleged that Scheer had engaged in sexual harassing behavior and that Wickman, Danielsen and Cullen ignored her complaints about it), she "began to experience subtle harassment by certain Commissioners and members of the fire companies who were aligned with and sympathetic to Commissioner Scheer."  She claimed that the harassment intensified when Scheer's daughter-in-law, Melissa Kosensky-Scheer was elected as a Fire Commissioner.

Specifically, Nelson claimed that Commissioner Wickman asked her, during a public meeting, if she had an "emotional attachment" to the District office's paper shredder that was previously used to shred pornography that Scheer had allegedly printed out on the office printer. She also claimed that Louis Hajdu-Nemeth, who served as Board chairman in 2010, directed her to address her complaints solely to him but then refused to meet with her to discuss her complaints.  She complained, generally, of a "good old boy" network in the District.

Central to Nelson's complaint was the alleged conduct of Millstone Valley Fire Department Captain Douglas Walp.  Walp had allegedly made a "specific death threat" against Nelson on or about December 16, 2012.  Walp allegedly had said that "the bitch (Nelson) better watch her ass or I'll put a bullet in her head and burn the place (District Office) down."  (The disorderly persons complaints that contain the comments allegedly made by Walp are on-line here.  Those complaints were dismissed, with Nelson's agreement, on October 21, 2013.)  She claimed that Walp, who was suspended after the reported threat, came to at least one District meeting at which she was present.

The case is captioned Nelson v. Commissioners of Fire District No. 1, et al, Docket No. SOM-L-232-13 and Nelson's attorney was Gina Mendola Longarzo of Chatham.  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 Nelson's allegations have been proven or disproven in court. The settlement agreement resolution expressly states that the $200,000 payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by Franklin or any of its officials. All that is known for sure is that Franklin or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Nelson $200,000 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.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Woodland Park secretly pays $257,500 to settle police false arrest suit.

On June 24, 2015, the Borough of Woodland Park (Passaic County) agreed to pay $257,500 to an African-American, married couple who sued members of the Woodland Park Police Department for assaulting, falsely arresting and hurling racial epithets at them.

In their suit, Michael and Robin McDuffie said that on February 10, 2010 they were shovelling snow off their driveway when Woodland Park Department of Public Works employee Jak Tripi, who was plowing snow from the McDuffie's street, angrily told them to stop throwing their shoveled snow into the street.  According to their lawsuit, Tripi said "You people are making my job hard" and "You black scum bags are throwing snow in the f***ing street!  You Mother F***ing N***ers; why are you here?!"

As the incident escalated, Tripi allegedly "punched Mrs. McDuffie on the left shoulder with a closed fist" and told the couple that he was going to get some gasoline, pour it on their property and "burn [their] black asses up."  Tripi, for reasons unexplained, allegedly called the Woodland Park Police Department, moved his truck in front of a neighbor's house and continued to hurl racial slurs at the couple.

According to the complaint, Police Chief Anthony J. Galietti, Sergeant Luigi C. DeLuca and Officers Renne (presumably Carlo Renne) and Erik M. Luker arrived at the scene and the two officers ran to the McDuffies' home with their weapons drawn.  Luker allegedly shoved Mr. McDuffie and grabbed Mrs. McDuffie's arm.  When Mrs. McDuffie told a family member to get a video camera, Luker allegedly "pepper sprayed [Mr. and Mrs. McDuffie] in the face and, forcibly handcuffed Mrs. McDuffie and pushed her into the police SUV."  Meanwhile, Renne allegedly chased Mr. McDuffie into the house and pulled him outside where he was also handcuffed.  According to the lawsuit, Luker punched Mr. McDuffie in the chest after he was handcuffed while Chief Galietti and Sergeant DeLuca watched but did not intervene.  Mr. McDuffie was put into a separate police SUV and the couple was driven to the police station and charged with aggravated assault, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest.

While at the police station, the McDuffies claimed to have been verbally abused by the officers.  Renne allegedly told them repeatedly that they didn't belong in Woodland Park and "should go back to Paterson." After they were released after six hours in custody, the McDuffies claimed that Luker called their home four times and then stopped by, in an attempt to intimidate them.

According to the lawsuit, a grand jury declined to indict the McDuffies and all the charges were dropped.  Also, the McDuffies claim that Sergeant John M. Uzzalino repeatedly refused to accept their Internal Affairs complaint against the officers.

The case is captioned Robin McDuffie, et al v. Borough of Woodland Park et al, Federal Case No. 2:12-cv-01055 and the McDuffies' attorney was Robin Bernstein of Nutley.  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 the McDuffies' allegations have been proven or disproven in court. The settlement agreement resolution expressly states that the $257,500 payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by Woodland Park or any of its officials. All that is known for sure is that Woodland Park or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay the McDuffies $257,500 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.