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.