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.