Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Union school board confidentially paid out $132,500 to former teacher who posted on Facebook that homosexuality is a sin.

On June 5, 2018, the Union Township Board of Education (Union County) agreed to pay $132,500 to a tenured special education teacher who said that she was forced to resign after she posted on her personal Facebook page that homosexuality is a "perverted spirit" and "unnatural immoral behavior." 

In her suit, Jenye Viki Knox, a tenured special education teacher, claimed that in September 2011 she publicly posted on Facebook about a billboard at Union High School that promoted "alternative lifestyles contrary to her private religious beliefs."  She claimed that she responded to attacks to her posting by expressing her belief, based on biblical text, of "homosexuality as a sin and disobedience to God."  Her lawsuit claimed that her posts were made during non-working hours without the use of school computers.

Knox, who had been employed by the Union school district as a special education teacher since 2000 and who also is an ordained minister, said that after school officials became aware of her posts on October 11, 2011 she "was removed from her classroom publicly without any advance notice in front of her students and in front of other teachers during school hours" and escorted to a small room where school board attorney James Damato, Assistant Superintendent Greg Tatum, and Union Township Education Association Vice President Jim Gross were waiting for her.  She claimed that the men "interrogated [her] about her Facebook posts and conversation" and that she was "pressured by these individuals to say that her religious beliefs were wrong."  She claimed to have "felt extremely intimidated."

Knox said that she was again removed from her classroom on October 13, 2011 and taken to a room where Superintendent Dr. Patrick Martin, Union High School Principal Ed Gibbons and Union Education Association President Ann Margaret Shannon were waiting for her.  At that meeting, Dr. Martin allegedly told Knox that she was suspended with pay because of her Facebook posts.  She claimed that she was not afforded any pre-suspension legal process and that after the meeting she was taken back to her classroom and told to gather her personal belongings and leave the property.

On October 18, 2011, the Board of Education held a public meeting at which Knox claimed her religious beliefs were criticized openly and publicly.  According to the lawsuit, Damato told Knox on December 23, 2011 that she was suspended without pay and that tenure charges were filed against her.  She claimed that school officials forced her to repay all the salary she received after her initial October 13, 2011 suspension.

On June 2012, Knox submitted her letter of resignation.  She claimed that the Board's actions caused her health to deteriorate "to the point where she could not longer work from the stress of the intimidation, harassment, and emotional distress that resulted from the investigation and the [school officials'] actions."

According to a news story, Knox agreed earlier this year to a three-year suspension of her teaching certificates.

The case is captioned Knox v. Union Township Board of Education, et al, Federal Case No. 2:13-cv-0587 and Knox's attorney was Demetrios K. Stratis of Fair Lawn. Case documents are on-line here.

The settlement agreement prescribed that the $132,500 was to be apportioned as follows: $24,500 for Knox's back wages, $63,833.33 for Knox's claims of emotional distress and $44,166.67 for Knox's attorney's fees and costs.

The settlement agreement contains a confidentiality clause, which prevents the parties to the suit from disclosing the settlement's terms to others, including the 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 Knox's allegations have been proven or disproven in court. All that is known for sure is that the Union school district or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Knox $132,500 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.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Belleville confidentially paid out $90,000 to settle police excessive force lawsuit.

On December 5, 2017, the Township of Belleville (Essex County) agreed to pay $90,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by a man, now deceased, who claimed that Township police falsely arrested and used excessive force against him in September 2010.

In his lawsuit, Nicholas H. Quartuccio, Sr. said that he was cooperative when police arrived at his home on September 2, 2010 in response to a call regarding a dispute between Quartuccio, his daughter and her boyfriend.  According to the lawsuit, the dispute was over whether the daughter's boyfriend was allowed to stay at the premises.  According to Quartuccio, officers kept asking him the same questions and kept responding "wrong answer" when he answered them.  He claimed that police, without cause, surrounded him and "hit him on the back of the head and slammed him to the ground."  Thereafter, the officers allegedly "kicked, punched and beat [him] outside his home, jumping and pummeling him and hitting him in the head." 

Quartuccio claimed that police falsely charged him with aggravated assault on a police officer, resisting arrest, criminal mischief and throwing bodily fluids at a law enforcement officer.  He said that he spent about a week in jail and, on advice of his lawyer, pled guilty to simple assault and a disorderly persons charge.

According to media reports, Quartuccio died in a house fire in early February 2015.  The settlement agreement was made with his estate.

Belleville police officers Matthew Dox, John Andino, Anthony Abate, Joseph Werner, Charles Mollineux, William Knoth and Franchino Pigantaro were named as defendants in the lawsuit.  Also named was then Chief Joseph P. Rotonda.

The case is captioned Quartuccio v. Township of Belleville, et al, Federal Case No. 2:12-cv-05464 and Quartuccio's estate's attorney was Shelley L. Stangler of Springfield.  Case documents are on-line here.

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 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 Belleville or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Quartuccio $90,000 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, June 10, 2018

State Trooper's lawsuit, filed in 2005, settled for $1.4 million.

On December 20, 2017, a former State Trooper, who sued the New Jersey State Police (NJSP) in 2005, finally settled his whistleblower and retaliation lawsuit for $1.4 million.

Brian Royster's lawsuit, which has taken a circuitous route through the court system, was extensively covered by the media.  Royster, who is black, claimed in his lawsuit that the NJSP denied him a promotion and violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by transferring him from an office job to conduct surveillance in an automobile.  Royster claimed that NJSP officials knew that the transfer did not accommodate his ulcerative colitis which requires him to be close to a restroom.  His lawsuit also claimed that he suffered retaliation when he reported that the NJSP did not properly investigate racial discrimination claims and that troopers accused of wrongdoing were allowed to retire instead of being disciplined.  He further claimed retaliation for reporting that white troopers were disciplined less severely than black troopers.

An Essex County jury awarded Royster $1.06 million in 2012 but this verdict was reversed and remanded by the Appellate Division on March 10, 2015.  In its opinion, the three-judge panel found that the state was immune from Royster's ADA claims and that several trial court errors required reversal of his Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA or Whistleblower) claims.  In a January 17, 2017 opinion, the New Jersey Supreme Court held that "the interests of justice" required that Royster be allowed to reinstate his Law Against Disability (LAD) claim which had been waived before the trial court.  The Supreme Court ultimately "molded" the jury's verdict and directed the trial court to enter a $500,000 judgment (plus $97,083.33 in interest) in Royster's favor on his LAD claim.

The $1.4 million settlement agreement appears to be in exchange for Royster's dismissal of his CEPA claims which were not directly considered by the Supreme Court's ruling.  A stipulation of settlement which was filed on April 11, 2018 specifies that the $500,000 judgment is also resolved by the $1.4 million settlement.  While it is not entirely clear, it appears that the $1.4 million amount is intended to replace the $500,000 judgement and not supplement it.

The lawsuit is is captioned Royster v. New Jersey State Police, et al, Docket No. ESX-L-7033-05 and Royster's attorney is Michael J. Reimer of South Orange.

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 the NJSP or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Royster $1,400,00 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, June 6, 2018

Manasquan school board paid out $75,000 to settle a high schooler's claim that he was incessantly bullied.

On August 4, 2016, the Manasquan (Monmouth County) Board of Education agreed to pay a high school student and his parents $75,000 to settle the family's claim that school officials did not do enough to protect him from harassment and bullying inflicted by other students.

According to the lawsuit, the student attended private school until his sophomore year and enrolled in Manasquan High School in the summer of 2014.  Despite a medical condition that entitled to boy to a "504 Plan," school officials did not provide an adequate 504 Plan, according to court filings.  Also, the boy's parents claimed that they specifically asked school officials not to put their son in the same classes with students who bullied him while he was in private school.

The student claimed that he "experienced substantial phycological and behavioral distress" on the first day of school "due to the relentless bulling and harassment about his medical condition by the same perpetrators who had harassed him in private school and were then attending Manasquan High School."

Despite their finding that the student had been the victim of two harassment, intimidation and bullying incidents, school officials allegedly "took no action to minimize [the boy's] contact with those classmates or to prevent harassment, intimidation and/or bullying from taking place.

The student and his parent claim that the bullying was so severe that the boy had to withdraw from Manasquan High School in October 2014 and complete his high school education in several schools, some of which charged tuition.  According to the suit, the boy continued to suffer emotional issues as a result of the bullying as of March 2016, when the lawsuit was filed.

Before releasing the lawsuit and settlement agreement,  Manasquan School District's records custodian, Tara Hudson, redacted the boy's and his parents' names from both documents. But, if one looks up the docket number on the New Jersey Superior Court's Civil Case Public Access System, the full names of both parents and the student are available.

The case bears New Jersey Superior Court Docket No. MON-L-1675-15 and the family's attorney was Teresa L. Moore of Morristown.  Case documents are on-line here.

None of the family's allegations have been proven or disproven in court. All that is known for sure is that the Manasquan school district or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay the family $75,000 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.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Raritan Township paid out $200,000 to settle police excessive force lawsuit.

On May 3, 2017, Raritan Township (Hunterdon County) agreed to pay $200,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by a Florida man who said police attacked him after he drove to the scene where officers had pulled over and harassed his daughter.

In his lawsuit, Dennis Shuman claimed that on August 5, 2012, after he came to the scene of his daugther Alexa's traffic stop, Officer David Carson "threw him with great force against the hood of his patrol car" when Shuman tried to call the police chief about Raritan Police allegedly harassing and intimidating Alexa.  He said that Carson then "threw him to the ground and continued to beat and attack him" while other officers joined in or failed to intervene.  Shuman claimed that he was falsely arrested for Obstruction of the Administration of Justice and Resisting Arrest and that Chief Glenn Tabasko and Lieutenant Nicklas Buck conducted an Internal Affairs investigation into the matter that was "a sham and a farce."

Shuman claimed that he came to his daughter's aid because she had been continuously harassed and intimidated by Officers Carson and Aaron Roth.  He said that between June and August 2012, Carson, Roth and other Raritan officers would "make U-turns and follow Alexa Shuman without stopping her and that on six occasions the officers "passed the driveway of Alexa Shuman's home with flashing lights and sirens activated after which they were deactivated."  He said that officers would pull over his daughter for offenses including making a "too quick right turn," "touch[ing] the white line" and "turning without the appropriate turn signal."

According to the lawsuit, one of the traffic stops resulted in a drug possession arrest of one of Alexa's companions.  According to an August 10, 2014 Courier News article on the matter, Alexa, two months prior to the August 2012 stop, "was charged twice in one week for possession of marijuana under 50 grams."  The Courier News article contains a video of the traffic stop and the altercation between officers and Shuman.

Shuman said that after his daughter called him from the scene of the August 5, 2012 traffic stop he "travelled by car several minutes to the scene" because he was concerned for his daughter's safety.  Upon arrival, he started crossing the street to speak with Carson when the officer ordered him back to his car because was "in an active roadway."  Shuman claimed that when he "began to obey and was walking back across the street" he was at the same time calling Chief Tabasko on his cell phone.  It was at this point that Carson allegedly grabbed Shuman by the arm and threw him against the hood of the patrol car and then to the ground while shouting "stop resisting!"  When Alexa exited her car to aid her father, Carson reportedly told her to "get back in the car or you're next."  A short while later, Roth and Sergeant Scott Lessig arrived at the scene and pinned Shuman to the ground.

Shuman said that Lessig applied the handcuffs too tightly and refused to loosen them, causing injury. He also said that his encounter with police caused several tears in the left retina, a chipped fracture of the left elbow and nerve damage to his left hand and arm.

Shuman said that on the advice of his attorney he pled guilty to the obstruction charge in municipal court but obtained a "civil reservation" that prevented the civil court from using his plea against him.

The lawsuit is is captioned Shuman v. Raritan Township, et al, Federal Case No. 3:14-cv-03658 and Shuman's attorney is Shelley L. Stangler of Springfield.  Case documents are on-line here.

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 Raritan or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Shuman $200,000 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.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

NJ Department of Corrections appeals $1.6 million whistleblower verdict.

On January 12, 2018, the New Jersey Department of Corrections (NJDOC) filed a Notice of Appeal contesting a  $1,630,423.02 judgment that was entered against the agency in favor of a former NJDOC administrator who a jury found had been retaliated against for engaging in protected whistleblower activities.  According to Camden County Superior Court Judge Anthony M. Pugliese's December 15, 2017 Order, the $1,630,423.02 total award is broken down as follows: $1,022.840.00 in damages, $8,020.07 in pre-judgment interest, $530,832.05 in attorney fees and $68,730.94 in costs.  According to the jury's October 6, 2017 verdict sheet, the $1,022.840 in damages was further broken down into $692,500 for "emotional distress" and $330,340.00 in "economic loss."

The plaintiff in the matter is Meg Yatauro who began her employment with the NJDOC in April 1984 and later served as Administrator of the Adult Diagnostic and Treatment Center (ADTC) and the Albert C. Wagner Youth Correctional Facility (Wagner).

In her lawsuit, Yatauro said that her problems at the NJDOC started when a search team, headed by Deputy Commissioner Mark Farsi, performed a routine search of the ADTC and found a pair of children's scissors in an inmate's cell.  According to Yatauro, the discovery of the scissors led to her being asked by Commissioner Gary M. Lanigan at an October 11, 2011 Challenge Historical Assumptions and Nobly Generate Efficiencies (CHANGE) meeting how the inmate came to possess the scissors.  Yatauro explained that the NJDOC had instituted a "Hobby Program" and that possession of the scissors by inmates was allowed by that program.

According to Yatauro's suit, Lanigan was "astonished to learn of the existence of the 'Hobby Program'" and ordered that hundreds of scissors be confiscated from all ADTC inmates.  On November 3, 2011, despite Yatauro's assurances that all of the scissors had been confiscated, NJDOC officials sent a search team into ADTC to search for any scissors that may not have been confiscated.  This search resulted in about two dozen inmate complaints of verbal and physical abuse.  Specifically, four inmates complained that they were ordered to stand naked up against one another so that one inmate's penis would be touching the next inmate's buttocks" and that corrections officers called them "fags."

Yatauro said that she found the complaints "credible" and forwarded them to Special Investigations Division (SID) for investigation.  She claimed that, Erica Madden, one of the SID investigators, only interviewed one of the four inmates who complained and refused to interview the other three because she didn't want to work overtime.  Yatauro said that she reported Madden's refusal to SID Chief Kevin Bolden who said that he wouldn't authorize overtime unless "the inmates' eyes were hanging out of their sockets."  After receiving about a hundred complaints from inmates about the search, Yatauro said that she took her complaint up the chain of command.  She said that she was surprised when, during a meeting about Yatauro's request for investigation, Deputy Commissioner Mark Farsi threatened her by telling her that Madden would not be working overtime and if "anything comes out of this investigation, it will be on you."  In a subsequent conversation with Divisions of Operations Director Michelle Ricci, Yatauro claimed that she was told she would be held accountable if the SID investigation revealed any wrongdoing regarding the search.

Yatauro claimed that she suffered retaliation for pushing for the investigation.  She claimed that Farsi told her that if she ever spoke to Commissioner Lanigan again, he would "bite off her fingers."  She also said that Madden screamed at her in January 2012 and that her complaints about Madden's tirade were not satisfactorily addressed.  She said that she objected when Bolden told her the SID would investigate the Madden incident because "it had been widely rumored that Madden was romantically involved with Bolden."  In a subsequent meeting with Bolden, Yatauro claimed that he told her he was "very angry with her for pursuing the complaint against Madden."  The lawsuit alleged that Madden filed complaints against Yatauro for racially discriminating against her because she (Madden) was black.

In June 2012, Yatauro said that she was transferred to Wagner--the "worst jail" which was widely known as "the rat hole" by NJDOC employees.  She said that the transfer was a calculated attempt by NJDOC officials to make "her employment so intolerable that she would be forced to resign."  She said that the Wagner facility was very filthy due to years of neglect and that she bought cleaning supplies and developed a plan to clean it up.  She claimed that Lanigan toured the Wagner facility in August 2012 and was "furious with her" about the filthy conditions at Wagner even though those conditions had existed for years prior to her transfer.

In another incident, Yatauro said that Bolden went outside the chain of command when he had Adrian Ellison, an SID investigator at Wagner, purchase some sage green paint for his office even though his request for the paint had already been denied by Ricci.  Yatauro confronted Ellison, according to the lawsuit, and told him that "she knew what they did was against the rules."  Later, Ellison was assigned to investigate an anonymous letter claiming that tools were being stolen at Wagner and that employees were doing personal tasks during work hours.  According to Yatauro, Ellison's main focus was not to determine the truth of the anonymous letter's allegations but rather to find out who wrote it.  According to the suit, Ellison attempted to have Sergeant Richard Nappa, who Ellison believed was the letter's author, criminally prosecuted for having written the letter. Yatauro claimed that Ricci rebuffed her complaints about the manner in which Ellison conducted the investigation.

In still another alleged incident, Yatauro said that she received a complaint that Ellison had visited a Wagner sergeant's wife's place of employment--a nail salon--and asked her for the sergeant's work schedule while Ellison was having his nails done.  The sergeant's wife allegedly reported that Ellison's actions were "creepy" and made her feel uncomfortable.  She said that her complaints to NJDOC officials regarding Ellison's conduct at the nail salon were disregarded but that her persistence in pursing the complaint as well as "additional complaints of sexual harassment that had come to light" ultimately resulted in Ellison being disciplined.  According to the lawsuit, Bolden, who allegedly belonged to the same Masonic Lodge as Ellison, was "displeased" that Ellison was disciplined.

In December 2012, Christopher Holmes, who Yatauro said has "a close personal relationship" with Bolden, became her direct supervisor.  Holmes allegedly undermined Yatauro during meetings and "required her to constantly re-write reports" when the same demands were not made of other NJDOC administrators.

Yatauro's lawsuit lists many more allegations that are not recounted here.  In sum she claimed that the retaliation she suffered culminated in her May 16, 2013 demotion from Administrator to Executive Assistant that resulted in an $26,000 salary reduction.  She said that she was assigned to perform the duties of a file clerk which she found "not only extremely demeaning but a complete waste of [her] talents and abilities."  She said that the intolerable working conditions forced her to retire on March 1, 2014.

According to an August 1, 2017 court filing, defendants Judith Lang and Christopher Holmes were dismissed from the lawsuit.

The trial court case was captioned Meg Yatauro v. Kevin Bolden, et al, Superior Court Docket No. CAM-L-1901-14 and Yatauro's' attorney is Heidi R. Weintraub of Cherry Hill.  The matter is currently pending before the New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Pleasantville Board of Education paid out $185,000 to resolve whistleblower claim.

On November 9, 2017, the Pleasantville Board of Education (Atlantic County) agreed to pay $185,000 to a former employee who said that she was improperly fired after reporting employees who were being paid "for doing no work."

In her lawsuit, Dawn Rice-Bivens, who started working for the school district full time in 2006, said that she notified former Superintendent Garnell Bailey in April 2012 that employees in the district's "Beat the Streets Program" were being paid "for doing no work" and that an employee of the district's Combining Academics Recreation and Enrichment (CARE) program called out of work and took five students and one other staff member to the beach.  Rice-Bivens claimed that Bailey initially wanted the CARE employee fired but changed her mind after learning that the employee "was a close friend of a District board member."

She claimed that she was called into Bailey's office in November 2012 where Bailey allegedly told her that she would be recommending that Rice-Bivens be fired because she was "a thief" who "embezzled from the District."  Rice-Bivens claimed that the Board of Education rejected Bailey's termination proposal at its December 12, 2014 only to have its decision reversed two days later by State Monitor James Riehman.  She claimed that when she saw Bailey at a May 2013 school board meeting, Bailey told her: "I have the last laugh, don't I Dawn."

According to a November 17, 2015 Press of Atlantic City article titled "Two charged two years after Pleasantville schools audit," the Attorney General's office filed charges against Rice-Bivens in August 2015 for an alleged $2,104 theft from the District.  There is no other article regarding the disposition of the charges and a search of the on-line Promis/Gavel database shows no convictions for Rice-Bivens.

The case is captioned Rice-Bivens v. Pleasantville Board of Education, et al, Superior Court Docket No. ATL-L-6802-13 and Rice-Bivens' attorney was Robert P. Merenich of Linwood.  Case documents are on-line here.

None of Rice-Bivens' 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 Pleasantville or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Rice-Bivens $185,000 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, May 28, 2018

Robbinsville paid out another $200,000 to settle final lawsuit arising out of police sergeant's "psychotic episode."

A Robbinsville Township (Mercer County) police sergeant's 2012 "psychotic episode" has so far resulted in the Township paying a $117,500 settlement to the cop who had the episode and a $100,000 settlement to a disabled couple's caretaker who claimed to have been injured during the episode.  At its May 10, 2018 meeting, the Township Council approved another $200,000 settlement to be paid to the disabled couple and their minor child who also claimed to have been injured by the sergeant.

A complete background on this matter is set forth in a March 3, 2018 article on this blog.  To summarize, Robbinsville Police Sergeant Mark Lee had a "psychotic episode" on September 17, 2012 during which he reportedly took his clothes off in a Township apartment and violently attacked a couple, who were both confined to wheelchairs, the couple's caretaker and their minor child.  On March 18, 2016, Robbinsville paid Lee $117,500 to settle his lawsuit in which he claimed that Township officials failed to accommodate a disability--calcium deposits on his brain--that caused him to suffer the "psychotic episode" that led to the assault.  On January 11, 2018, Robbinsville paid $100,000 to settle caretaker Bashemah Rountree's lawsuit that claimed that Lee threw her against a wall when she tried to protect the child from harm. 

In the settlement approved on May 10, 2018, Robbinsville agreed to pay $130,000 to the couple's child and $70,000 to the couple themselves for injuries they reportedly suffered as a result of Lee's actions.  The couple and their then 4-year-old child are identified in court papers by their initials but the husband/father has been identified in previous news stories by his full name.

The couple and child's lawsuit is is captioned N.S. and S.S as guardian for J.S. v. Township of Robbinsville, et al, Mercer County Superior Court Docket No. MER-L-1988-14 and their attorneys were Clifford D. Bidlingmaier, III and Robin Kay Lord both of Trenton.  Case documents are on-line here.

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 Robbinsville or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay the couple and their child $200,00 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.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Buena Vista paid out $25,000 to former DPW Director. The settlement extinguished the Director's sexual harassment complaint without mentioning it.

On February 13, 2017, the Township of Buena Vista (Atlantic County) entered into a settlement agreement under which its Public Works Director received $25,000.  Even though the settlement agreement recites a "restructuring" that eliminated the the full-time DPW Director position, it also extinguished (but does not mention) a civil rights claim in which the DPW Director accused the Township Administrator of sexual harassment.

In his administrative complaint filed with the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights, former DPW Director Richard P. Calareso claimed that Township Administrator Kenia Nunez-Acuna "made unwelcomed direct physical contact with him" on December 30, 2016.  According to the complaint, Nunez-Acuna "asked him for hug at least seven times" and "chased after him and put her arm under his arm to make it appear as if the two were walking arm in arm."  Calaruso also claimed that Nunez-Acuna "forcibly pushed her breast against [him] three times."

The case is captioned Calareso v. Township of Buena Vista, Civil Rights Docket No. EA05UB-663054 and Calareso's attorney was the Law Offices of Jacobs & Barbone of Atlantic City.  Case documents are on-line here.

None of the the complaint's allegations have been proven or disproven in before any tribunal. 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 Buena Vista or its insurer, for whatever reason, paid Calareso $25,000. Perhaps the defendants' decision was done to save further legal expense and the costs of contesting what were in fact exaggerated or meritless claims. Or, perhaps the claims were true and the Township wanted to avoid being embarrassed at a hearing. This is the problem when cases resolve before they are adjudicated--it is impossible to know the truth of what really happened.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Sussex Sheriff pays out $95,000 to female lawyer who said that jail guard "wanded" her between her legs.

On March 21, 2018, the Sussex County Sheriff's Office paid $95,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by a Hackettstown lawyer who claimed that a Sheriff's Officer improperly placed a metal detecting wand between her legs when she was entering the Keogh-Dwyer Correctional Facility in Newton to visit a client. 

In her lawsuit, Bonita B. Bourke claimed that as a lawyer she routinely goes through security at correctional facilities and courthouses.  But, when she and a male intern entered the Newton faciility on August 20, 2014, Officer Sean Long allegedly departed from what she was accustomed to and moved his wand "upward under her skirt, lifting [her] skirt."  Despite her protests, she claimed that Long used his wand on her again by placing it between her legs and telling her to "spread your legs."  She claimed she became upset but was wanded a third time.

Bourke claimed that Long apologized to her as she was leaving the facility.  She alleged that the incident caused her to become "anxious and disoriented" and that she "vomited on the side of the road" while driving back to her office.

The case is captioned Bourke v. County of Sussex, et al, Sussex County Superior Court Docket No. SSX-L-664-14 and the Bourke's attorney was John F. McDonnell of Washington.  Case documents are on-line here.

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 Sussex County or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that they would rather pay Bourke $95,000 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, April 3, 2018

Stratford quietly paid out $125,000 to settle DPW worker's sexual harassment lawsuit.

On December, 8, 2017, Stratford Borough (Camden County) agreed to pay $125,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by former Department of Public Works employee who claimed that the former Borough Clerk would grab his rear end, ask him whether he was wearing a thong and say "Hubba hubba hubba."

In his lawsuit, Andrew Marano claimed that former Borough Clerk John Keenan had been sexually harassing him and other employees "for years."  Marano's lawsuit, which was filed on April 22, 2016, claimed that Keenan would repeatedly comment on "how tan he was," rub his shoulders and back while they were in Borough Hall and sometimes "grab or rub Marano's rear end." 

According to the lawsuit, Keenan, who reportedly oversaw the DPW, asked Marano who was soaked after putting up a clock in the rain, to "take his jeans off and wear a yellow thong for the rest of the day."  According to Marano, Keenan "frequently made it known that he was homosexual" and "would text Marano while he was on vacation and ask Marano if he was 'at the nude beach' [and] to take pictures for him."

Marano claimed that Stratford had no meaningful sexual harassment policy and that "Keenan would frequently hire people to whom he was sexually attracted, even if they were not qualified or otherwise prohibited from working for Stratford."  Marano's lawsuit alleged that one of Keenan's favored hirees "would work during the summer with just a vest, without a shirt underneath" and said that "If I blow him [Keenan], he'll get me a motorcycle."  According to the lawsuit, the hiree soon ended up owning a motorcycle shop.  Marano claimed that Keenan's sexual harassment compelled him to go on a leave of absence and ultimately lose his job.

Marano's suit also claims that Keenan retaliated against him after he complained that Keenan allegedly stole "hundreds of pounds of metal from Stratford."

The lawsuit is is captioned Andrew Marano v. Borough of Stratford, et al, Docket No. CAM-L-1577-16 and Marano's attorney is Leo B. Dubler III of Mount Laurel.  Case documents are on-line here.

The settlement agreement contains a confidentiality clause, which prevents the parties to the suit from disclosing the settlement's terms to others, including the 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 Stratford or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Marano $125,000 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.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Pennsauken quietly paid out $770,000 in 2006 to settle female police officer's sexual harassment and retaliation lawsuit.

I normally do not post settlements of cases that are this old, but the size of the settlement, the nature of the allegations and the fact that the alleged sexual harasser has since been promoted to Police Captain and still serves in that position cause me to make an exception.

Pennsauken Police Officer Susan D. Holtz filed her sexual harassment civil lawsuit on June 4, 2003.  Holtz, who was hired as a patrol officer in 1990, said that she was "a very close friend of" Michael Probasco, who was then a patrolman, until she met her husband, Larry Holtz.  According to Holtz, her decision to cut off all personal interaction with Probasco so that she could "devote her entire romantic attention" to Larry Holtz "enraged Probasco" and resulted in Probasco spreading lies about her in order to sabotage her relationship with Larry.

After Probasco was promoted to sergeant, Holtz claimed that he used his position of command to try to get back into her personal life.  Holtz said that when she rebuffed him, Probasco retaliated by telling other officers that Holtz was a "bad cop" that should be avoided.  Holtz claimed that Probasco once came into the woman's locker room when she was wearing only a t-shirt and underwear.  She claimed that Probasco unzipped his pants to expose his erect penis and told her "I want you to suck this!"  Holtz related another incident when Probasco allegedly stared at her crotch while she was walking and told her "I can see the outline of your lips in those pants." 

According to Holtz's complaint, Probasco's harassment started in April 1994 and she felt uncomfortable in his presence through to her filing of the complaint.  She said that she was hesitant to report Probasco's "grotesque sexual advances" to upper management out of fear of retaliation because Police Chief John Coffey and Probasco "were best of friends."

Holtz's civil complaint contains many other allegations, only some of which are recounted here:

1. Probasco and other officers engaged in "outrageous fraud" by clocking in and the leaving their posts resulting in them getting paid for time that they did not work. 

2. After being interviewed by the Camden County Prosecutor's Office, which Holtz characterized as a "waste of her time" because the the questions "were phrased in a way as to hopefully solicit answers favorable to Probasco," her personal car was "'keyed' down to the metal on the driver's side."

3. Chief Coffey intervened in a matter in which the girlfriend of a Pennsauken officer had been arrested in Cherry Hill for buying drugs while driving the officer's car.  The officer's handgun was allegedly in the car at the time of her arrest.  Holtz alleged that Coffey's intervention caused the charges against the officer's girlfriend to be dismissed.

4. Coffey and Probasco allegedly wrote traffic tickets but destroy all the copies except for the one given to the municipal court.  This would cause those cited to have arrest warrants issued against them when they did not show up for court.

5. Holtz claimed that Probasco, after becoming a sergeant, began a relationship with a married Pennsauken police dispatcher who was later hired as a police officer.  Holtz claimed the dispatcher/officer, due to her sexual relationship with Probasco, received preferential treatment.

According to a March 8, 2018 letter from the Township Clerk, Probasco was hired on April 19, 1982 and presently serves as Police Captain earning $145,424 per year.

Holtz's lawsuit is is captioned Susan Holtz v. John Coffey, et al, Camden County Superior Court Docket No. CAM-L-3284-03 and Holtz's attorney was Clifford Van Syoc of Cherry Hill.  Case documents are on-line here. Of the $770,000 settlement, Holtz received $520,000 and Van Syoc received $250,000.

Probasco was named in another lawsuit filed in 2004 by another female officer named Karen Denelsbeck.  Denelsbeck claimed that Probasco, who was then a lieutenant, made inappropriate comments regarding her pregnancy and repeatedly pestered her to go on dates with him.  Denelsbeck, who was married to a Evesham officer, said that sexually suggestive remarks made by Probasco caused her to be "embarrassed, upset and scared."  Her lawsuit, captioned, Karen Denelsbeck v. Michael Probasco, et al, Camden County Superior Court Docket No. CAM-L-715-04 settled in 2005 for $36,750.  Denelsbeck's attorney was Anthony F. DiMento of Cherry Hill. Case documents are on-line here.

Both settlement agreements contain confidentiality clauses which prevent the parties to the suit from disclosing the settlement terms to others, including the 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 either lawsuits' 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 Pennsauken or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Holtz and Denelsbeck than take the matters 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.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Robbinsville quietly paid $100,000 to settle one claim arising out of cop's "psychotic episode" and is negotiating settlement of another.

At its January 11, 2018 meeting, the Robbinsville Township (Mercer County) Council approved a confidential $100,000 settlement to resolve a lawsuit filed by an in-home caregiver who said that a Township police sergeant "disrobed in [her clients'] apartment" and "began a violent and unprovoked attack" upon her, the disabled couple for whom she was working and the couple's four-year-old son.  The couple, who are both confined to wheelchairs, filed a separate lawsuit which, according to a March 1, 2018 e-mail from Robbinsville Municipal Clerk Michele Seigfried, has been resolved by a settlement agreement that is still in draft form and cannot be released.

The caregiver who filed suit is Bashemah Rountree and the accused police sergeant is Mark Lee who was, at the time of the September 17, 2012 incident, an 18-year veteran of the Robbinsville Police Department.  According to media reports, Lee allegedly broke into Rountree's clients' apartment, ripped off his clothes, knocked the disabled female client out of her wheelchair and assaulted the couple's child.  In her lawsuit, Rountree claimed that Lee threw her against a wall when she tried to protect the child from harm.  Another news source reported that Lee, after being taken into custody, kicked a window out of a police car and ran away only to be captured after a foot-chase.

According to a June 14, 2013 Times of Trenton article, aggravated assault, official misconduct and child endangerment charges against Lee were dropped conditioned upon Lee completing a three-year Pretrial Intervention (PTI) program.  As a further condition of being admitted to PTI, Lee had to forfeit his position as a police officer.

On May 18, 2016, Robbinsville paid $117,500 to settle a lawsuit filed by Lee that claimed that Township officials failed to accommodate a disability that caused him to suffer the "psychotic episode" that led to the assault.  Lee claimed that his conduct was the result of a physical disability which prosecutors reportedly said was calcium deposits on his brain.

$12,500 of the $117,500 settlement Robbinsville paid to Lee was held in escrow to pay toward settlements or judgments that the disabled couple, their child or Rountree sought from the Township.

Rountree's lawsuit is is captioned Rountree v. Township of Robbinsville, et al, Mercer County Superior Court Docket No. MER-L-1956-14 and Rountree's attorney was John G. Devlin of Lawrenceville.  Case documents are on-line here.

The settlement agreement contains a confidentiality clause, which prevents the parties to the suit from disclosing the settlement's terms to others, including the 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 Robbinsville or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Rountree $100,00 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, February 20, 2018

Elizabeth paid out $250,000 to settle police excessive force lawsuit.

On November 13, 2017, the City Council of City of Elizabeth (Union County) resolved to pay $250,000 to settle a 2015 lawsuit filed by a Philadelphia man who claimed that several police officers beat him and that one officer "pressed his foot down on [his] face pushing it into the pavement."

In his suit, Jerome Wright claimed that he was driving in Elizabeth on June 26, 2013 when officers Rui Xavier and Luis Figueiredo pulled him over for a traffic stop.  Wright said that Xavier ordered him out of his car at gunpoint and arrested him.  He claimed that when he "made the reasonable request to know shy he was being placed under arrest," Figueiredo applied a "sustained spray" of Pepper Spray to his face.  Even though Wright said that he was submissive and compliant with the officers' commands, Xavier and Figueiredo both shot him "again in the face with a sustained burst of Pepper Spray from both sides at the same time."  Figueiredo then allegedly took Wright to the ground where Xavier kicked him in the ribs.  Wright said that the two officers then took turns pinning him to the ground with their knees while Xavier beat him with a flashlight or a nightstick. 

According to the lawsuit, Lieutenant Robert Keily, Sergeant Michael Niewinski and officers Michael Carreto and Guido Quelopana arrived on-scene.  The lieutenant and sergeant allegedly did nothing to stop Xavier's and Figueiredo's actions while Carreto and Quelopana reportedly "sprinted to join" Xavier and Figueiredo in their attack upon Wright.  Quelopana allegedly "placed his knee on the back of [Wright's] head and pushed his full weight down on [Wright's] skull while [he] laid face-down on the pavement."   According to the lawsuit, Carreto "proceeded to drop his entire weight down through one knee on to [Wright's] lower back" while another kicked Wright in the face, while Wright was handcuffed, "and pressed his foot down on [Wright's] face pushing it into the pavement."

The officers allegedly fabricated a police report to show that Wright resisted arrest and tried to elude police.

The case is captioned Wright v. City of Elizabeth, et al, Federal Case No. 2:153-cv-04429 and Wright's attorney was Michael Orozco of Woodcliff Lake.  Case documents are on-line here

None of Wright's allegations have been proven or disproven in court and settlement, without more, does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by Elizabeth or any of its officials. All that is known for sure is that Elizabeth or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Wright $250,000 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.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Lindenwold Borough confidentially paid out $9,300 to settle police excessive force lawsuit.

On October 4, 2017, the Borough of Lindenwold (Camden County) quietly paid $9,300 to a woman who said that police roughed her up, false arrested her and humiliated her by groping and exposing her genitals and breasts in a public parking lot.

In her lawsuit, Ramona Berry, who at the time was 50, said that on September 12, 2014 she rode with her daughter Aisha to the location where Lindenwold police had detained her other daughter for a traffic stop.  She said that she identified herself as the detainee's mother and asked police what was going on.  Berry claimed that Patrolman Sean Williams screamed that if she didn't get back into Aisha's car she would be arrested.  Berry said that Williams was screaming in her ear as she was trying to open the car door at the same time that Aisha was trying to unlock it.  She said that after she gave up trying to open the car door, Williams "slammed her fifty-year-old body and head into a parked car, bent her over the car, handcuffed her violently, dragged and pushed her to a police car, tossed her roughly into the back of a police car, and violently shoved [her] legs into the car." 

When Berry arrived at the police station, Williams, in the station's parking lot and in full view of other officers who were shining flashlights on her, allegedly pulled her clothes and undergarments away from her body and exposed her breasts and genitals to the other officers.  She claimed that Williams' search "was conducted for the purpose of sexually humiliating and intimidating" her.  She alleged that she was put in a jail cell where she used the toilet without having been advised that a security camera was recording her.

Berry claimed that she was charged with obstructing Williams' investigation and for "body checking" Williams in the parking lot outside of the police station. She alleged that both charges were dismissed when videos of the parking lot encounter and her use of the toilet were produced.

The case is captioned Berry, et al v. Lindenwold Borough, et al, Federal Case No. 3:15-cv-08043 and Berry's attorney was Derek A. Steenson of Philadelphia.  Case documents are on-line here.

The settlement agreement contains a confidentiality clause, which prevents the parties to the suit from disclosing the settlement's terms to others, including the 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 Lindenwold or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Berry $9,300 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, January 17, 2018

Middlesex County paid out $20,000 to settle lawsuit filed by estate of 25-year-old woman who hanged herself in county jail.

On September 2, 2017, the County of Middlesex agreed to pay $20,000 to settle a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the estate of a 25-year-old Colonia woman who hanged herself on August 5, 2013 while an inmate in the Middlesex County Adult Correctional Facility.

In its complaint, the estate of Ashley Shubiger said that jail officials failed to protect the woman even though they knew or should have known that Shubiger "was a high risk of suicide" who "required one on one constant supervision." 

The case is captioned Shubiger v. Middlesex County, et al, Middlesex County Superior Court Docket No. MID-L-4696-15 and Shubiger's estate's attorney was Dean R. Maglione of Newark.  Case documents are on-line here.

None of the 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 Middlesex or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay the estate $20,000 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.

Deptford Township and its MUA paid out $175,000 to settle former in-house lawyer's whistleblower lawsuit.

On October 30, 2016, Deptford Township (Gloucester County) and its Municipal Utilities Authority (MUA) agreed to pay $175,000 to settle a contract lawyer's lawsuit that claimed she was retaliated against after reporting improper activities including misappropriated funds from a Township account  .

In her complaint, Maria DeTitto said that she entered into a written employment contract with the MUA under which she was to act as the MUA's In-House Counsel, Human Resources Director and Compliance Officer through 2016.  She claimed that she was required to perform legal and other services for Deptford Township even though her employment contract didn't permit additional duties to be assigned to her without her consent.  She claimed that she was given no guidance on how to fulfill the duties assigned to her and that her work product was shared with other attorneys "who would bill [Deptford Township] for work that [DeTitto] performed." 

While her complaint is difficult to understand, it appears that DeTitto claimed that she was fired from the Township in 2013 and from the MUA on October 6, 2014.  She claimed that her termination from the MUA was rescinded after she complained that it was done in a way that violated her employment contract.

DeTitto claimed that she was suspended for six weeks in 2014 and required to undergo a psychological examination prior to being reinstated.  She said that this was done in retaliation for her having complained that her termination was unlawful.  She said that after reinstatement, she found that money was missing from the Township's Council on Affordable Housing (COAH) account and that "the Township Solicitor improperly accepted funds from the COAH trust account for purposes that were not permitted." 

She further claimed that even though she was the Human Resources Director, she was not allowed to fire an employee who was "involved in a work-related sexual harassment matter" and that the Deptford Township Mayor instructed the MUA Executive Director to have the Township Solicitor handle the matter instead.  She said that the same employee was later involved in "an off-duty altercation" during which that employee brandished a gun.

Of the $175,000 settlement, DeTitto received $125,000 and her lawyer received $50,000.

The case is captioned DeTitto v. Deptford MUA, et al, Gloucester County Superior Court Docket No. GLO-L-1370-15 and DeTitto's attorney was Jacqueline M. Vigilante of Mullica Hill.  Case documents are on-line here.

None of DeTitto'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 Deptford or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay DeTitto $175,000 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, January 9, 2018

Howell Township confidentially paid out $350,000 to settle lawsuit filed by estate of man who died in police custody.

On November 6, 2017, the Township of Howell (Monmouth County) quietly agreed to pay $350,000 to the estate of man whose lawsuit claimed he died as a result of excessive force applied during a weekend-long music festival.

In her lawsuit, Theresa Taylor, the administratrix of the estate of Timothy J. Harden and Harden's sister, claimed that Harden was working as a volunteer for a September 3, 2015 music festival called the Souper Groove "where alcohol and drugs were available, open and obvious to the public, festival staff and/or security personnel."  During the event, Harden allegedly had a "medical and/or psychiatric episode" which resulted in Howell police being called and Harden being restrained by festival staff and security personnel "with excessive and unreasonable force."  Howell officers reportedly also applied excessive force to Harden "including choking him and fracturing his thyroid cartilage."  The lawsuit alleged that the actions and inactions of the festival staff and the Howell officers caused Harden's death.

Other than the Township and Howell Township Police Chief Andrew A. Kudriack, Jr., the Priedaine New Jersey Latvian Society, Souper Souper, LLP and the LLP's owners were named as defendants in the lawsuit.  The $350,000 payment releases only the Township defendants so there may have been additional sums paid by the private-party defendants.

The case is captioned Taylor, et al v. Howell Township, et al, Federal Case No. 3:15-cv-08043 and Taylor's attorney was Thomas J. Mallon of Freehold.  Case documents are on-line here.

The settlement agreement contains a confidentiality clause, which prevents the parties to the suit from disclosing the settlement's terms to others, including the 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 Howell or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Harden's estate $350,000 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.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

$25,000 quietly paid to settle excessive force lawsuit convicted drug offender filed against Vineland police.

On April 14, 2017, the City of Vineland (Cumberland County) agreed to pay $25,000 to an East Orange man who claimed that City police officers applied excessive force upon him on two separate occasions in 2011 and 2013.  The same man was sentenced, in accordance with a plea bargain, to two to five years in prison for drug possession and resisting arrest charges that arose out of the same two occasions.

In his lawsuit, Noel Jones said that on December 1, 2011, he was a passenger in a car stopped by Officers Gary Mollik and Jose Torres for having a defective tail light.  According to an April 1, 2016 decision by United States District Court Judge Noel L. Hillman, Jones claimed that while being patted down, he was threatened with physical violence by one of the officers and Mollik swung at him with an open hand causing him to "run in a circular direction in an attempt to alert neighbors as to what was unfolding because [Jones] feared for his safety due to Mollik’s unprovoked assault."  Torres then reportedly tackled Jones and placed him in a chokehold causing him to lose consciousness.  According to Jones' version of the account, as set forth in Judge Hillman's opinion, he was stuck and kicked by Mollik which caused him to be transported to a hospital where he was diagnosed with a fractured orbital bone and a fractured jaw.

The officers' account, also set forth in Judge Hillman's opinion, is vastly different.  According to Mollik's account, Jones was trying to escape when Mollik tackled him, severely injuring the officers' knee in the process.  While Mollik admitted to having struck Jones in the face three times and putting him in a headlock, he said that he needed to do so to gain control over Jones who was violently resisting arrest.  The officers said that Jones continued to resist arrest until officers threatened to release a K-9 on him.  The officers said that once arrested and inside the police vehicle, Jones tried to hide a bag containing heroin and cocaine in his waistband.

The second alleged instance of police brutality occurred on June 23, 2013 at the Vineland bus station. Jones claimed that he was getting off a bus when police surrounded him and accused him of dealing drugs.  He claimed that officers handcuffed him and slammed him to the ground, beat him and took him to headquarters where they "illegally strip searched" him and held him in custody for a day and a half.  According to police, however, Jones was observed speaking with a "middleman [who] routinely brokered transactions between drug dealers and drug buyers in exchange for free heroin."  When questioned by Officer Louis Platania, Jones said that his name was "Lee Jones."  According to Judge Hillman's decision, which set forth the police version of the incident, Platania recognized Jones and knew him to be a drug dealer who used the street name "Snowy."  The police claimed that they then tackled Jones, handcuffed him and found a digital scale in his pants pocket.  Jones reportedly had clenched his hand around an object and police had to strike his fingers with a baton to get him to open up his hand.  Once open, the police were able to retrieve what appears to have been a rock of crack cocaine.

On January 26, 2015, Jones pled guilty to some of the charges arising out of both arrests and was sentenced to two to five years in prison. 

On April 1, 2016, Judge Hillman dismissed the counts of Jones' civil lawsuit regarding the June 23, 2013 incident but refused to dismiss the excessive force and battery claims arising out of the December 1, 2011 arrest.

The case is captioned Jones v. City of Vineland, et al, Federal Case No. 1:13-cv-07132 and Jones' attorney was Paul R. Melletz of Cherry Hill. The complaint and settlement agreement are on-line here.

The settlement contains a confidentiality clause, which prevents the parties to the suit from disclosing the settlement's terms to others, including the 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 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 Vineland or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Jones $25,000 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.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Somerset Vo-Tech confidentially paid out $110,000 to settle gay teacher's discrimination lawsuit.

On December 18, 2017, Somerset County Vocational Technical Board of Education President William Hyncik quietly signed off on an agreement to pay $110,000 to a former Spanish teacher who claimed that he was relentlessly harassed by students for being gay and that school officials did not take appropriate steps to abate the harassment.

In his suit, Kevin McManus, a tenured teacher who began working at the school in 2008, claimed that he "was subject to a hostile work environment" after a student disclosed McManus' sexual orientation to his Spanish class in May 2011.  Thereafter, other students, particularly two identified in the lawsuit by their initials S.L. and D.M., began taunting him with comments such as "don't choke on that d**k," "do you like nuts?" and "do you like fudge?"

McManus claimed that he reported all the harassment incidents to Jamie Morales, the school's disciplinary coordinator, who allegedly "did not take appropriate steps to stop it."  Instead, Morales reportedly "encouraged D.M. to 'keep doing what you're doing'" and to "document Mr. McManus' activity during class."

McManus claimed that he also complained to Principal Diane Ziegler and Affirmative Action Officer Teresa Morelli who also did not appropriately respond to the harassment.  According to the lawsuit, Ziegler wrote to McManus in October 2013 and stated that she had a "classroom management concern" regarding McManus and stated that "professional development in the area is encouraged."

After McManus filed a complaint with the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights, he claimed claimed that school officials retaliated against him.  McManus claimed that he was not allowed to use personal days to create long weekends and that he was denied paid leaves of absence due to medical conditions caused by the reported harassment.

He claimed that Superintendent Chrys Harttraft, who allegedly said that "she did not believe that [McManus] was 'homosexual' because 'he is not effeminate,'" demanded his resignation in March 2014.  McManus said that he did resign in November 2014.

According to the settlement agreement, McManus will receive $66,905.68 of the $110,000 while his lawyer will receive $43,094.32.

The case is captioned McManus v. Board of Education of the Somerset County Vocational & Technical Schools, et al, New Jersey Superior Court Docket No. SOM-L-314-15 and McManus' attorney was Andrew M. Moskowitz of Springfield. The civil complaint is on-line here and the settlement agreement is on-line here.

The settlement contains a confidentiality clause, which prevents the parties to the suit from disclosing the settlement's terms to others, including the 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 McManus' allegations have been proven or disproven in court. All that is known for sure is that the school district or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay McManus $110,000 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.