Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Robbinsville to quietly pay former officer $117,500 to settle his discrimination suit.

On May 18, 2016, the Township of Robbinsville (Mercer County) produced a draft settlement agreement that calls for a $117,500 settlement payment to a former Township police officer who claimed that Robbinsville failed to accommodate a disability that caused an on-duty "psychotic episode" during which he allegedly assaulted a woman in a wheelchair and her 4-year-old son.

In his complaint, Mark B. Lee, a 17-year veteran of the police department, said police noticed something was "wrong with him" and that "he didn't act right" after they arrived at a Hutchinson Avenue home in response to a September 17, 2012 911 call reporting an assault in progress.  Officers reportedly found Lee sitting on a couch in his uniform pants and a white T-shirt.

Lee's episode continued while he was being transported to the police station and Chief Martin P. Masseroni heard Lee's screaming over the patrol car radio.  While the officers accompanying Lee in the patrol car considered taking him to a hospital, Masseroni allegedly ordered him returned to the police station.  He was ultimately taken to the hospital and then admitted to the Ann Klein Forensic Center for thirty days.

According to the complaint, Robbinsville suspended Lee without pay immediately after the incident and conditioned paying his accrued sick time upon him resigning from the department.  Lee later resigned as a condition of the criminal charges against him for which he was admitted to Pretrial Intervention with thirty-six months of supervision.

Lee complained that Robbinsville officials "consistently viewed the incident as a criminal matter, and failed to even concede the possibility, let alone recognize, despite substantial medical evidence, that the unfortunate events of September 17 were due to a serious medical event."  He said that Robbinsville officials impeded his efforts to obtain his accrued time and opposed his application for temporary disability benefits from New Jersey.

The settlement calls for $12,500 of the $117,500 to be held in escrow to pay toward settlements or judgments that the Hutchinson Avenue family or another lawsuit claimant, Bashemah Rountree, may take against Robbinsville.

Also named in the suit was Lieutenant Michael Polaski.

The case is captioned Lee v. Township of Robbinsville, et al, Mercer County Superior Court Docket No. MER-L-2023-14 and Lee's attorney was Edward J. Nolan of Hackensack.  Case documents are on-line here.

The draft settlement agreement contains a confidentiality clause, which prevents Lee from making "any efforts to publicize or publish the terms of" or "initiate oral or written communications about" 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 Lee's allegations have been proven or disproven in court. Settlement agreements typically state that payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by any of the defendants.  All that is known for sure is that Robbinsville or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Lee $117,500 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.

Note: The court marked the case as having settled.  While it is possible that a dispute will arise prior to the settlement agreement being signed, this rarely happens because the settlement has been negotiated and agreed to by all the parties.  Readers who wish to be absolutely sure that this case settled according to the terms stated above should submit an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request for the final, signed settlement agreement.