Thursday, March 10, 2016

Quinton pays $50,000 to resolve former Housing Officer's wrongful discharge lawsuit.

On February 9, 2016, the Township of Quinton (Salem County) agreed to pay $50,000 to a former Township employee who claimed that the Township wrongly discharged him and that the disciplinary hearing he underwent was a "legal nullity."

Gary L. Bell, Sr. filed a lawsuit in New Jersey Superior Court on January 16, 2014 that was later transferred to the United States District Court.  In his state court complaint, Bell claimed that his father Albert, prior to his death, gave him verbal permission to have the father's condemned dwelling demolished.  Bell said that he contacted Patrick Foster, Chief of the Quinton Volunteer Fire Company, and arranged with Foster to have the fire department burn the structure down on December 21, 2010 as part of a training exercise.

The state court complaint goes on to say that Housing Official Bell, Chief Foster, Deputy Chief David Stites and Salem County Fire Academy Instructor Brent Sullivan were arrested on July 21, 2011 for arson and other charges.  Bell's lawsuit alleges that he charges were dismissed against him, Stites and Sullivan on May 28, 2013 but that Foster pled guilty to some of the charges and received a jail sentence.  Foster's guilty plea is the topic of  a December 3, 2012 press release from the New Jersey Attorney General.  

The Township reportedly initiated removal proceedings against Bell on September 4, 2013, who had been on unpaid administrative leave since July 27, 2011.  Bell said that on November 20, 2013, he appeared without a lawyer before Hearing Officer Earl Gage who sustained nine of the ten charges brought against him.  The Township Committee reviewed Gage's findings and terminated Bell at its December 18, 2013 meeting.

The purpose of the state court lawsuit was to appeal the termination, restore Bell to his position and to pay for his lost pay, emotional damages and attorney fees.  Bell argued that the Township violated state law by not having rules and regulations regarding the procedures to be followed at disciplinary hearings.  He also claimed that the hearing was held more than 30 days after the charges were served upon him, which is also a violation of the law; that the Township never informed him of his right to be represented by a lawyer at the hearing and that he was surprised at the hearing by discovery that he had not before seen.

Bell's amended complaint, filed in federal court, raised many of the same allegations and arguments made in the state court action. It added, however, allegations that Gage, at the urging of attorney Elizabeth M. Garcia, denied Bell's request for a continuance of the November 20, 2013 hearing so that Bell could retain a lawyer. Bell also claimed that Gage allowed hearsay testimony and did not give him an opportunity to present rebuttal testimony under oath.  Bell claimed that Gage wasn't appointed hearing officer until seventy-seven days after the hearing was held and that the hearing itself was "more or less a 'Kangaroo Court.'"

Bell was represented in state court case case by David R. Branco of Turnersville.  In the federal case, he was represented by William H. Tobolsky of Willingboro. Case documents are on-line here.

None of Bell's allegations have been proven or disproven in court. All that is known for sure is that Quinton or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Bell $50,000 than take the matter to trial. Perhaps the defendants' decision 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 resolve before trial--it is impossible to know the truth of what really happened.