Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Vineland quietly paid out $425,000 to settle detective's whistleblower lawsuit.

On August 20, 2018, the City of Vineland (Cumberland County) agreed to pay $425,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by a police detective who claimed that he was retaliated against for reporting another detective's alleged act of warning a fugitive that undercover police officers were going to search his residence.

In his lawsuit, Richard Burke said he discovered evidence that Detective Shane Harris "hindered a fugitive investigation by warning the fugitives that Vineland police officers were outside [the fugitive's] residence and described their undercover cars to the fugitive as well as providing advice to the fugitive to refuse a search of his residence."  Burke claimed that he later learned that "Harris' daughter was dating one of the fugitives involved in the investigation and that her vehicle was used to flee from Vineland Police Officers [and that one of the fugitives attempted] to strike Sergeant Steven Triantos with Detective Harris' daughter's vehicle."  He also claimed that Harris' mother hid the fugitive in her home.

Despite reporting his findings to his superiors, including Captain Rudolph Beu, Captain Thomas Ulrich, Sergeant Steven Triantos and Sergeant Leonard Wolf, Burke claimed that no action was taken against Harris.  Rather, Uhrich "threatened to suspend [Burke] if he continued to complain about Harris' conduct," according to the lawsuit.

Burke said that his efforts to hold Harris accountable led to a "steady barrage of retaliation" from his superiors including being demoted, being denied sick time and personal days, having his car taken away and being called "a rat."

As part of the settlement, Burke agreed to "retire his position as an officer with the City of Vineland Police Department effective August 31, 2018 due to work related disability injury."

The case is captioned Burke v. City of Vineland, Cumberland County Superior Court Docket No. CUM-L-649-15 and Burke's attorney was Louis Barbone of Atlantic City.  The complaint and settlement agreement 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 Vineland or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Burke $425,000 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.