Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Toms River Township to confidentially pay $15,000 to settle deaf arrestee's discrimination claim. Township also promises to better accommodate deaf persons going forward.

On August 10, 2016, Toms River Township (Ocean County) produced a draft agreement that calls for $15,000 to be paid to a profoundly deaf man who claims that he was arrested and incarcerated after a traffic stop and refused access to a sign language interpreter who would have helped him communicate with police.  His lawsuit also claimed that Ocean County correction officers failed to provide him with video phone or other device so that he could communicate from jail with his family or attorney.  As part of the settlement, the Township also agreed to change the way it deals with Deaf and Hard of Hearing persons.

In his suit, John Buccieri of South Grafton, Massachusetts said that he was pulled over on December 12, 2012 by Officer Stephen Austin who allegedly became "irate" and "aggressive" when Buccieri "exit[ed] the vehicle so he could understand why he was given a ticket."  Buccieri claimed that Austin arrested him for resisting arrest and assaulting a police officer and that "all requests for a sign language interpreter were ignored."

Buccieri claimed that officials at the Ocean County Department of Corrections also refused him an interpreter and access to "a videophone or any way for [him] to communicate with the outside world."  He also claimed that he was given a medical exam and an injection without explanation or his informed consent.

As part of the settlement, Toms River also will sign off on a Consent Agreement that will require the Township's police department to post signs and to better accommodate Deaf and Hard of Hearing Individuals they encounter in the future.  The draft Consent Agreement is included among the documents at the link below.

The case is captioned Buccieri v. Toms River Township, Federal Case No. 3:14-cv-04484 and Buccieri's attorney was Clara R. Smit of East Brunswick.  Case documents are on-line here.  The $15,000 settles Buccieri's claims only against Toms River.  An Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request has been submitted to Ocean County for its separate settlement agreement and this article will be updated upon receipt.

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 Buccieri'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 Toms River or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Buccieri $15,000 than take the matter to trial. Perhaps the 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.

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 by the Township, 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.