Monday, July 31, 2017

Hudson confidentially paid out $120,000 to settle Sheriff Officers' retaliation lawsuit.

On May 2, 2017, the County of Hudson quietly agreed to pay $120,000 to two Sheriff Officers who claimed that former Sheriff Juan Perez and his political allies "created a culture of retaliation and intimidation within the Hudson County Sheriff's Office designed, in part, to promote Sheriff Perez's own personal and political agenda while quashing any political dissent or opposition to his administration."

In their complaint, Lieutenant Thomas Cerwinski, Sergeant Walter Zapoluch and Sheriff Officer Alex Pino claimed that Perez, along with Chief John Bartucci, Captain Larry Groskopff and Lieutenant Jose Gonzalez would use the Internal Affair system to selectively punish Perez's political enemies for minor infractions while allowing more serious misconduct by Perez's allies to go unpunished. 

Cerwinski alleged that he was unfairly denied promotion opportunities and Pino said that Groskopff referred to Hispanics as "Spics."  The plaintiffs also alleged that Perez would pressure sheriff officers to buy his fundraising tickets.

The settlement agreement, however, names only Cerwinski and Zapoluch as receiving a "one-time, lump-sum payment of $30,000.00 each."  No reference is made to Plaintiff Alex Pino so it is unknown at this time how Pino's case against the County resolved.  (Update: According to an August 3, 2017 e-mail from Donna M. Picinich, Legal Assistant to First Assistant County Counsel Michael L. Dermody, "there was no settlement with Mr. Pino as his case was dismissed on a Motion for Summary Judgment.")  The settlement also calls for Zayas to receive $60,000 for his attorney's fees and costs.

The case is captioned Cerwinski, et al v. Hudson County Sheriff Juan Perez, et al, Federal Case No. 2:10-cv-06830 and the plaintiffs' attorney was Louis A. Zayas of North Bergen.  Case documents are on-line here.

The settlement agreement contains a confidentiality clause, which prevents the parties to the suit from "affirmatively initiat[ing] publicity or contact[ing] with the press or media concerning this litigation or this settlement nor respond[ing] if contacted by the press or media."  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 the lawsuit'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 Hudson or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay the Cerwinski, Zapoluch, Pino and Zayas $120,000 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.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Brooklawn and Bellmawr confidentially paid out $275,000 to settle fatal police shooting lawsuit.

On June 9, 2017, the Boroughs of Brooklawn and Bellmawr (Camden County) jointly agreed to quietly pay out $275,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by the family of a man who was fatally shot by police in 2012.

The lawsuit was brought by Deborah Wilson on behalf of her brother Michael Wood's estate.  The suit claimed that Wood called 911 on April 26, 2012 after having become intoxicated and very depressed at his brother's Bellmawr apartment.

According to the lawsuit, police forced their way into the apartment
and fatally shot Wood as he emerged from a bedroom while possibly carrying a knife.  A December 20, 2016 Opinion written by United States District Judge Joseph H. Rodriguez, however, provides more detail and context to the event.

According to Judge Rodriguez's opinion, Brooklawn Officer Charles Holland and Bellmawr Sergeant Jeffrey Vance were the first to arrive at the apartment in response to Wood's 911 call.  While they were outside the door attempting to make entry, they heard police dispatchers over the radio attempt to dial the number from which the 911 call originated.  The calls, which went straight to voicemail, indicated that that Michael Wood, or his brother Chris Wood, was unable to answer because he was deceased.

Vance and Holland, joined by Bellmawr Officers Christopher Cummings and Chris Wilhelm, forced the door, announced their presence and ascended a staircase with guns drawn.  They encountered Christopher Wood at the top of the stairs and handcuffed him without incident.  Michael Wood then called out from a back room, "It's not him you want, you're here for me."

While Cummings and Wilhelm took Christopher outside, Vance and Holland moved further into the apartment.  Holland saw Michael Wood through an open bedroom door sitting "Indian-style" on the floor holding a large knife and "twisting it into his upper thigh area."

Holland and Vance had testified that they spoke with Michael Wood for about five minutes in an attempt to get him to surrender his knives.  Vance described Wood's demeanor as "calm" while Holland said that he was "agitated."  When Wood closed the bedroom door, police interpreted it as a "barricade situation" and called in a SWAT team.

While waiting for the SWAT team to arrive, police brought Chris back into the apartment to help talk Michael into surrendering.  According to Judge Rodriguez's opinion, it appears that Chris became antagonistic by calling Michael names and telling him "look at that cop he's pointing a gun at you. He's gonna fucking kill you."  Michael reportedly told Chris to shut up and that "I just want to say goodbye."

A couple of minutes later, Michael reportedly opened the door while carrying the 14-inch knife vertically, with the blade pointing up.  According to Holland, he fired two fatal shots when Wood raised the knife to shoulder height and "pivoted toward Sergeant Vance."  Vance, however, said that the arm with which Wood held the knife was in a downward position and that Wood never turned toward him but remained facing Holland.

The case is captioned Estate of Wood, v. Borough of Bellmawr, et al, Federal Case No. 1:13-cv-0543 and the Estate's attorney was Robert J. Hensler of Collingswood. The complaint and and the settlement are on-line here.

The release contains a confidentiality clause, which prevents the parties to the suit from disclosing the settlement amount and 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 Wood's estate'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 Brooklawn and Bellmawr or their insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Wood's estate $275,000 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.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Franklin paid out $6,000 to settle woman's racial discrimination, excessive force and false arrest lawsuit.

On April 14, 2017, the Township of Franklin (Somerset County) paid $6,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by a woman who claimed that Township police subjected her to excessive force and then illegally seized her rental car in retaliation for her having filed an Internal Affairs complaint.

In her complaint, Rozia K. Mosley, who described herself as "a member of several protected classes in that she is handicapped and suffers from serious medical conditions" (surgical implantation of a titanium spinal cage around a portion of her spinal column) and as "a woman of African American descent," said that on March 8, 2015 she returned to a Somerset Street convenience store to retrieve some cigarettes that she had purchased a little while earlier . . . that were inadvertently not given to her at the time of purchase."  She claimed that the store owner, Shadesh Patel, who was not the person who sold her the cigarettes earlier, "failed to believe [her] and became disgruntled and called 911."

In response to the 911 call, Corporal Daniel McNamara and Officers Lila Madama, Michael Opaleski and Kenneth Reid arrived at the scene.  According to the complaint, Madama and McNamara "violently shoved" Mosley causing her to fall to the floor, lose consciousness and experience "uncontrollable muscle spasms."  Madama and McNamara then allegedly handcuffed Mosley tightly behind her back and "dragged her out of the store with her arms behind her back and her feet dragging behind her." 

Opaleski and Reid then allegedly "threw her into [a patrol car] so that she landed on her back on top of her handcuffed arms, wrists and hands" while all four officers stood outside the vehicle, laughed at her and told her to "stop faking seizures and that nothing was wrong with her."  The officers allegedly ridiculed her for 45 minutes before calling for an ambulance. 

Mosley said that she filed an Internal Affairs complaint against the four officers on March 31, 2015 and that on April 1, 2015, out of retaliation, Lieutenant Gregory Borlan and two other unnamed Caucasian officers seized her rental car, placed her in the back of a police car and drove her home.  She claimed that she gave Borlan keys to the rental car when he and other officers intimidated her by surrounding her when she was leaving the municipal court room and blocking her ability to walk away from the area.  Mosley claimed that police did not return the rental car to the rental car company until 14 days later, causing her to receive "a bill for usage of the vehicle by others not authorized to use same and damage to the vehicle and a bill for highway tolls."  She claimed that her Internal Affairs complaint and an aggravated assault charge against McNamara were not acted upon. 

The case is captioned Mosley, v. Township of Franklin, et al, Federal Case No. 3:16-cv-00790 and Mosley's attorneys were Christopher C. Roberts of East Orange and Frederick Coles, III of Warren.  The complaint and and the settlement are on-line here.

The release identifies Borlan, McNamara, Madama, Opaleski and Reid as "non-settling defendants."  The release does not benefit Patel, the convenience store owner, who Mosley named as a defendant in the suit because he allegedly "aided and abetted discriminatory conduct toward her" and for calling her a "fucking dumb black bitch" and other profanities and racial slurs during her March 8, 2015 visit to his convenience store.  It is unknown how Mosley's lawsuit resolved against Patel although the court docket indicates that a default was entered against him on May 16, 2016 "for failure to plead or otherwise defend."

None of the Mosley' 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 Franklin or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Mosley $6,000 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.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Cumberland paid out $45,000 to settle truck driver's sexual harassment lawsuit.

On July 10, 2017, Cumberland County agreed to pay $45,000 to a public works employee who claimed that he was sexually harassed by his supervisor.

In his lawsuit, John James, Jr. claimed that he worked as a truck driver and equipment operator without incident from his hiring in 2002 until Donald Olbrich was hired as Supervisor of the Public Works Department in October 2009.  James, a heterosexual, claimed that Olbrich "began making sexual overtures to [James] shortly after Olbrich was hired but the County."

According to the lawsuit, Olbrich said, in front of other employees, that he wanted to use some of the grease that the employees were using and "slap that on [James'] ass."  The lawsuit also alleged that Olbrich would stare at James' buttocks which caused him to feel "rattled and dirty" and that Olbrich would, in reference to a hydraulic hose, wink at James and say "mine is bigger than that."

James claimed that he complained about the harassment to Fran Smith, his union representative but that a subsequent investigation, conducted by County Director of Personnel Joseph Rossi "was less than thorough as it focused only on . . . the incident involving the comment about Olbrich wanting to grease James' ass, and, only one witness was interviewed despite there being more than one witness to the incident."

According to the lawsuit, Olbrich then retaliated against James by giving him unfavorable transfers to different Public Works yards around the County and excluding him from opportunities for promotion.

The lawsuit was the subject of articles in both the Daily Journal and NJ Advance Media soon after it was filed in early 2015.  The articles both quote County Solicitor Ted Baker as stating that he did his own investigation and "[didn't] find any merit to this claim."

The case is captioned James v. County of Cumberland, Docket No. CUM-L-70-15 and James' attorney was Michelle J. Douglass of Somers Point.  Case documents are on-line here.

None of James' 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 Cumberland County or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay James $45,000 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.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Keansburg confidentially paid $22,500 to settle man's false arrest lawsuit.

On May 16, 2016, the Borough of Keansburg (Monmouth County) quietly paid $22,500 to settle a lawsuit brought by a man who claimed that his arrest by Borough police was in retaliation for him having complained about the police department's slow response time several weeks earlier.

In his complaint, Thomas J. Harris said that he called police on December 20, 2014 because a parked car was blocking his driveway.  Officer James Koempel, who responded to the call, allegedly disagreed with Harris and said that the car was not blocking his driveway.  Later that evening, Koempel, along with six other officers, returned and arrested Harris for criminal mischief claiming that he had vandalized the parked car.  Harris denied the accusation and said that Koempel threatened to call his employer to "tell them what kind of person" he was.  Harris said that he posted bail, was released from jail and was ultimately found not guilty of the charges.

Harris claimed that his arrest "was in retaliation for an incident which had occurred several weeks prior, when [Harris] and his wife had complained to the Keansburg Chief Police about the slow response time of the police, when the couple was attacked by a pitbull."  Also named in the suit was officer Justin Cocuzza.

The case is captioned Harris, v. Borough of Keansburg, et al, Superior Court Docket No. MON-L-3329-15 and Harris' attorney was Donald R. Moran of Jersey city.  The complaint and and the settlement are on-line here.

The release contains a confidentiality clause, which prevents the parties to the suit from disclosing the settlement amount and 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 Harris' 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 Keansburg or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Harris $22,500 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.

Lenape Valley Regional school board confidentially paid $55,000 to settle former assistant principal's wrongful termination lawsuit.

On March 9, 2017, the Lenape Valley Regional Board of Education (Sussex County) quietly paid $55,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by former assistant principal who claimed that his unwillingness to lie under oath to sabotage a disabled student's lawsuit against the school district caused him to be harassed and eventually fired.

In his suit, Dr. Keith Lockwood, said that Superintendent Paul DiRupo and Business Administrator Robert Klinck referred to the disabled student as "Retard" and the student's mother as a "c**t" and a "pain in the dick."  According to the lawsuit, both DiRupo and Klinck were worried that the disabled student "might become class valedictorian, and such an occurrence must be prevented at all costs." 

After Lockwood refused to lie under oath, he was allegedly threatened with loss of his job.  Lockwood also claimed that in 2013, DiRupo propositioned him to engage in a sex act.  According the the lawsuit, DiRupo "unequivocally requested that [Lockwood] perform oral sex after Lockwood offered to show DiRupo a pressure point on his hand that could be utilized to relieve DiRupo's headaches.  DiRupo also allegedly used a racial slur to refer to a black student who had been expelled for fighting with a white student.

More details regarding Lockwood's allegations can be found by reading the lawsuit itself or the New Jersey Herald's June 17, 2015 article, "Former assistant principal suing Lenape superintendent, BOE."

The case is captioned Lockwood v. Lenape Valley Regional Board of Education, et al, New Jersey Superior Court Docket No. SSX-L-333-15 and Lockwood's attorney was Nima Ameri of Hackensack.  Case documents are on-line here.

As part of the settlement, Lenape agreed to give a neutral reference to Lockwood's future, prospective employers.

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 Lockwood'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 the Lenape Valley Regional school district or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Lockwood $55,000 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.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Bridgeton Board of Education paid out $197,500 to settle former employee's whistleblower lawsuit.

On April 10, 2017, the Bridgeton Board of Education (Cumberland County) agreed to pay $197,500 to a former teacher who said that her contract was not renewed after she complained that school officials would not help protect her from repeated physical assaults by students.

In her lawsuit, Michelle Andrews claimed that after she was assaulted by a student in January 2015, she filed a criminal complaint against the student and asked school officials "that the student who assaulted her be removed from her class so she would be protected from future violent acts."  Andrews claimed that her supervisors refused her request and told her to "put on her big girl pants and deal with it."  She claimed that she was again struck in the face by a student on March 18, 2015 when she was trying to break up a fight and was "body checked" by a female student shortly thereafter.  Andrews claimed that her supervisors did not write up or document the latter assault even though it was captured by a video camera.

After she formally complained to the Superintendent of Schools an offer to renew her contract was allegedly rescinded.  Andrews claimed that the non-renewal was done to retaliate against her for having complained.

The lawsuit was covered by the Daily Journal shortly after it was filed.  According to the article, the students who assaulted Andrews were sixth-graders.

As part of the settlement, the school board agreed to give a neutral job reference to Andrews' future employers.


The case is captioned Andrews v. Bridgeton Board of Education, Docket No. CUM-L-387-16 and Andrews' attorney was Richard M. Pescatore of Vineland.  Case documents are on-line here

None of Andrews' 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 the Bridgeton school board or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Andrews $197,500 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.