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.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Evesham school board confidentially paid out $85,000 to settle lawsuit filed by disabled preschool student who said she was physically assaulted by her teacher.

On December 11, 2017, Burlington County Superior Court Judge Martin A. Herman approved a settlement under which the Evesham Board of Education (Burlington County) agreed to pay $85,000 to a disabled preschool student who was allegedly forcibly shaken by a teacher who claimed that the child "uses her disease as an excuse and chooses to be stubborn."

In her suit, the then three-year-old, identified only by her initials O.O, claimed that Cheryl Cassidy, her preschool teacher, "physically grabbed" her and "forcefully shook [her] back and forth" on November 12, 2012 when the child refused to speak.  According to the lawsuit, O.O. suffers from Type 1 Diabetes and "select muteness" which causes her to be "very quiet around most people outside of her immediate family." 

Cassidy also allegedly insisted on potty-training O.O. because she "uses the bathroom too often."  O.O's mother said that she explained to Cassidy that diabetes caused O.O's body to produce an abnormal amount of urine to excrete glucose in response to high blood glucose levels.  According to the lawsuit, Cassidy continued to potty-train O.O. despite this explanation.

O.O.'s mother alleged that she made contact with Sandy Student who was then the President of the Evesham Township Board of Education.  According to the lawsuit President Student asked the mother if she understood the allegations that she was making and told her "You have no proof."

O.O.'s mother reportedly removed O.O. from the school because she "was in fear of leaving her daughter alone with" Cassidy.

Of the $85,000 settlement, $22,663 went to O.O's lawyers and $62,337.00 was placed with the Burlington County Surrogate.

The case is captioned O.O a minor v. Evesham Township Board of Education, et al, New Jersey Superior Court Docket No. BUR-L-412-16 and O.O's attorney was R. Armen McOmber of Red Bank. Case documents are on-line here.

The General Release 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. Also, imposing a confidentiality agreement in this case makes little sense because Judge Herman's December 11, 2017 Order is a public filing.

None of O.O's allegations have been proven or disproven in court. All that is known for sure is that the Evesham school district or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay the girl $85,000 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.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Linden and Roselle together paid out $35,833.34 to settle a lawsuit filed by woman who claimed police excessive force.

On October 12, 2017, the final signature was affixed to a settlement agreement under which the City of Linden and the Borough of Roselle (both in Union County) agreed to pay $35,833.34 to a Roselle Park woman who said that City and Borough police applied excessive force upon her.  Of the total, $21,666.66 was paid by Roselle and $14,166.68 was paid by Linden.

In their lawsuit, Elizabeth Drada and David Vega (Vega withdrew from the lawsuit on October 6, 2017) said that on November 17, 2013, they, along with Emanuel Rivera, left a Wood Avenue, Roselle bar and restaurant at about 11:30 p.m. after Vega "was asked to leave the bar by security despite the lack of any altercation or fight."  Drada and Vega said that they were "profiled" by security as "potential troublemakers" because of their Hispanic origin and because Rivera had a tattoo on the side of his neck that contained the word "King."

Drada and Vega said that they were walking toward their car, which was several blocks away, without being disorderly or aggressive when several police officers followed them and "began to verbally harass and abuse" them.  The officers allegedly said to them things such as "get out of here" and "don't come back here" and falsely stated in a police report that Drada and Vega acted in a disorderly manner.  One of the officers allegedly assumed that Drada, Vega and Rivera were gang members after seeing Rivera's tattoo.

For an unexplained reason, Rivera reportedly took off his shirt and Drada said that she was grabbed by the officers when she attempted to get Rivera to put his shirt back on.  At this point, Rivera, in an effort to protect Drada, allegedly "reach[ed] for [Drada] but ends up hitting a [police officer] in error."  Vega, who said that he was attempting to video record the altercation on his phone, said that one of the officers "smacked [the  phone] out of his hand" and confiscated it.  Meanwhile, Drada said that she was handcuffed and thrown to the ground so hard that she fractured her ankle. Drada said that after being searched by Odom, a female officer, Odom and another officer "picked her off the ground, flipping her into the car onto her stomach and twisting her ankle, compounding the injury." 

Drada said that she spent about eleven hours in a cell at the Roselle police station.  She said that Sergeant Barnes refused her repeated requests for medical assistance.  She said that she was made to hop on one foot in order to be fingerprinted and that a female officer eventually obtained an ambulance for her.  She said that the disorderly conduct and resisting arrest charges were dismissed when she entered a guilty plea to the municipal noise ordinance.

While the pair could not identify the officers at the scene, they said that they later learned that the Roselle officers who where at the scene and/or at the station were Sergeant Williams (presumably Stacey L. Williams), Sergeant Brian Barnes, Officer William Lord and Officer Odom (presumably Jaclyn R. Odom) and that the Linden Officers were James Edgar, P. Kudlac (presumably Patrik Kudlac), Mohr (presumably Jason Mohr) and Jedrezejewski (presumably Martin Jedrzejewski).

Also named as defendants were Roselle Police Chief Gerard Orlando and Linden Police Chief James M. Schulhafer. 

The case is captioned the Elizabeth Drada, et al v. Borough of Roselle, et al,  Federal Case No. 2:15-cv-08052 and Drada's attorney was 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 anyone.  All that is known for sure is that Linden and Roselle or their insurers, for whatever reason, decided to pay Drada $35,833.34 rather 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, November 15, 2017

Pennsauken school board paid out $500,000 to settle lawsuit filed by high school student who was slashed across her face on the school bus.

On June 15, 2017, the Pennsauken Board of Education (Camden County) agreed to pay $500,000 to a high school student who claimed that another student slashed her "across her face with a bladed weapon" on June 19, 2014 while she was on her school bus waiting to be taken home.  The alleged slasher, who also claimed damages in the suit, appeared to receive nothing.

In her suit, the female high school student identified only by her initials D.O. said that school officials were aware of the slasher's violent tendencies because the same assailant attacked her on school property two weeks earlier and that school officials had a video recording of that attack.  D.O. claimed that school officials ignored her "repeated pleas for protection."

According to a January 15, 2016 Courier Post article, D.O.'s accused attacker, identified in court papers by her initials S.C.A., sought damages from the school district because she claimed "she was the victim of unchecked bullying."  According to the article, S.C.A. claimed that D.O. was a “ringleader” for bullies who had targeted S.C.A.  While the redactions make it impossible to tell for sure, a July 17, 2017 release shows that someone--probably S.C.A.--released her claims in exchange for no payment.

Principal Tameka Matthews and Assistant Principal Thomas Honeyman were named as defendants in the lawsuit.

The case is captioned D.O. a minor by her guardian at litem, M.O. v. Pennsauken High School, et al, New Jersey Superior Court Docket No. CAM-L-361-15 and D.O.'s attorney was Norman M. Hobbie of Eatontown.  Case documents are on-line here

None of D.O.'s allegations have been proven or disproven in court. All that is known for sure is that the Pennsauken school district or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay the girl $500,000 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, November 12, 2017

Evesham confidentially settled with fired cop.

On October 24, 2017, the Township of Evesham (Burlington County) agreed to allow a police officer who was fired effective November 8, 2016 to resign in lieu of being terminated  The agreement also allowed the former officer to keep $30,135.82 that the Township said the officer received while she was suspended.

According to her complaint, Officer Kathleen A. Portella was suspended with pay on November 8, 2016 after having been served with a Preliminary Notice of Disciplinary Action (PNDA). She was served with another PNDA on January 9, 2017. After four Department Level Hearings held in February and March 2017, she was issued a Final Notice of Disciplinary Action on July 21, 2017 which, according to Portella 's lawsuit, caused her to be terminated effective November 8, 2016.  Her lawsuit sought a Superior Court judge's review of the disciplinary matter and reinstatement to her job with back pay and seniority rights. 

Evesham Township contested Portella's suit and, in a counterclaim, sought to recover from her $30,135.82 it said it paid Portella between November 8, 2016 and July 21, 2017.

In the October 24, 2017 confidential agreement, both parties agreed that in lieu of being fired, Portella would be allowed to resign effective July 21, 2017 and keep the $30,135.82 that was paid to her during her suspension. As part of the settlement, Portella agreed to "not seek reemployment with Township in any capacity."

Nothing in any of the available paperwork explains the nature of the conduct that caused Portella to be fired.

According to a November 6, 2017 letter from the Township, Portella began her employment with Evesham on September 13, 2015 and was making $53,500 per year in 2017. 1

Both the Township and Portella agreed to keep the settlement "confidential to the maximum extent permitted by law." Fortunately, such confidentiality agreements are trumped by the public's right to know under the Open Public Records Act.

The complaint, counterclaim and settlement agreement, are online here. Portella was represented by Stuart J. Alterman of Marlton and the Township was represented by Elizabeth M. Garcia of Mount Laurel.