Thursday, December 22, 2016

Police union complains that Sea Isle City police chief is "demeaning and insulting."

In a December 10, 2016 letter to Sea Isle City (Cape May County) Mayor Len Desiderio, the Cape May County Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #7 stated that "we have come to a point where we no longer have confidence in the leadership of Chief of Police Thomas J. D'Intino."

The letter goes on to state that the chief "has regularly engaged in conduct toward members of the department that can be described as both demeaning and insulting" and cites "markedly low morale, lack of positive dialogue and [a] failure to address situations involving training, equipment and grievances."

The letter, which requests a meeting with the Mayor and City Council, states that the union does "not intend to make these issues a public spectacle."

Middletown taxpayers must reimburse teachers pension fund $3.8 million.

An appeals court today affirmed a ruling requiring the Middletown Board of Education (Monmouth County) to reimburse its pension fund $3,815,600 for offering Board employees an "illegal" early retirement incentive.

According to the Appellate Division's December 22, 2016 opinion, the Middletown school board approved a "sidebar agreement" with the local teachers union on October 22, 2007 that offered tenured teachers who retired or resigned prior to June 30, 2008 $225 for each unused sick day up to a maximum of $40,000.  The agreement similarly offered non-certified union members $125 per sick day up to a maximum of $20,000. 

The next day, an Audit Supervisor with the Division of Pensions and Benefits, who had heard about the offering, said that the offering needed to be reviewed by the Division and asked the Board for specific information which the Board provided on November 5, 2007.  By then, five teachers and a secretary had exercised their rights under the sidebar agreement. 

On August 1, 2008, the Division informed the Board that the early retirement benefit was "impermissible" and directed the Board to "provide a final list of all individuals" that had taken advantage of it so that a Division actuary could "develop the acceleration cost of this incentive which in turn will be billed to [the Board]."  Although the Board responded to the Division on August 11, 2008, the Division did not get back to the Board until February 6, 2014.  On that date, the Division informed the Board that it was "responsible for the additional pension liabilities created" by its unauthorized early retirement incentive.  The Division calculated the present value of those pension liabilities at $5,429,900 and invoiced the Board for that amount.

The Board appealed the Division's decision and invoice to Teachers' Pension and Annuity Fund (TPFA) Board of Trustees.  On December 14, 2014, the TPFA affirmed the Division's ruling that the early retirement incentive was illegal but reduced the assessment to $3,815,600 and allowed the Board to pay that amount over a five year period at no interest.

The Board filed another appeal which was resolved by the TPFA's March 13, 2015 written decision.  That decision held that 41 employees ultimately took advantage of the sidebar agreement's early retirement incentive and that those early retirements burdened the pension fund. 

The Appellate Division rejected the Board's appeal of the TPFA's ruling.  The court found that the Board "approved the Sidebar Agreement without consulting the Division or obtaining approval and then implemented the Sidebar Agreement after receiving a letter from the Division stating approval was required before such a plan could be implemented."  The court also noted that the Board failed to provide any actuarial evidence to contest the findings of the Division's actuary.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Pennsauken school employee accused of breaking leg of bullied student.

In a lawsuit filed in September 2015, a male seventh-grader who claimed to have been bullied since the fourth grade said that a math teacher threw him to the ground and broke his leg while he was trying to defend himself from a bully's attack.

In their lawsuit, the student, identified as Z.B., and his parents said that Z.B. constant exposure to bullying was reported but that school officials failed to protect him.  According to the lawsuit, the bullying worsened in 7th grade when a another student, N.G. "pointed a realistic looking toy gun at Z.B. in school," an act which allegedly netted N.G. eighteen months of probation.  Z.B. claimed that when two other students threatened him, he received detention for being threatened.

According to the suit, Z.B. was "sucker punched" in the face on June 9, 2014 by student D.B. and that "while D.B. was physically attacking Z.B., Pennsauken School employee John DelGrippo violently pulled Z.B. away from the scene and threw Z.B. to the ground" causing Z.B. to "incur a bone fracture" and other injuries.  An employee named "John DelGrippo" is listed on the school board's website as being a math teacher at Phifer Middle School.

The lawsuit is presently in discovery phase and no proceedings are currently scheduled.  Z.B. and his parents are being represented by Gregg L. Zeff of Mount Laurel and the school district is being defended by William S. Donio of Cooper Levenson of Atlantic City.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Actions that "may" cause emotional harm justify revocation of license to run a home for the developmentally disabled even if those actions do not cause actual emotional harm.

Today, the Appellate Division upheld a decision by the Department of Human Services to revoke a woman's license to operate a residence for developmentally disabled people.  According to the decision, licensee Alice Wilkins, after days of having dealt with a defiant 20-year-old patient who had been "crying, cursing, screaming, and punching the walls," told the patient that she would have her "locked up in Ancora [Psychiatric Hospital]."  She also admitted to having locked the front door of the residence after the patient left with a packed bag, even though she did immediately let the patient back into the house after she banged on the door.  According to the decision, the patient, identified only as F.D, "had a history of disagreements with her caregivers" and "there were several reports of documented instances of F.D. falsely accusing other mentors and their family members of misconduct," including false claims about a teacher making advances toward her and a mentor's family member raping her.

An Administrative Law Judge reversed the Department's decision to revoke Wilkins' license.  The judge found that events occurring during the days leading up to the "Ancora" threat "amply portrayed F.D.'s deteriorating behavior and tendency to provoke, manipulate or lie."  The judge also noted that Wilkins had reached out to her employer and the Department of Developmental Disabilities for help with F.D. but that neither assisted her.  The judge ultimately found that Wilkins did not lock F.D. out of the house and that her "Ancora" comment was "not abusive when viewed in context."

The Department reversed the Administrative Law Judge's decision because "the fact that Wilkins' actions were not intention did not excuse them," that "verbal threats and demeaning statements . . . may cause emotional harm" and that "it is not relevant that there is no actual emotional harm, as long as the actions . . . are of a type that may cause emotional harm."  The Department also ruled that that neither Wilkins' remorse nor the amount of stress that she was under excused her actions.

The Appellate Division, which is required to uphold the Department's decision unless it is arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable, upheld Wilkins' license revocation.  The two-judge panel said that while it "appreciate[d] the [judge's] concerns regarding the harshness of the revocation of Wilkins' license based upon the actions of a single day when she acted under stress, especially where the blame for the incident should be shared with those who ignored her prior pleas for help," it also recognized "that the primary concern of the agency and the applicable regulations are to protect very vulnerable, developmentally disabled individuals, who are frequently difficult to manage from even unintentional abuse and neglect."

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Contrite Burlington County lawyer willing to accept discipline for neglecting his client's case.

In May 2016, state attorney disciplinary authorities charged a Mount Laurel attorney with failing to advise his clients that a nursing home negligence lawsuit he had filed on their behalf had been dismissed and then misrepresenting the status of the case to both his clients and the ethics investigator.

According to the complaint, Saul G. Gruber, who chairs the Javerbaum Wurgaft Nursing Home Group, filed the negligence suit in 2009 on behalf of a man and his mother.  The suit, however, was reportedly dismissed on April 18, 2011 after the nursing home filed a "summary judgment motion that went unopposed by" Gruber.  In 2014, the clients filed their first ethics grievance against Gruber after he failed to return several calls they had left asking for the status of their lawsuit.

After Gruber received the ethics grievance, he called his clients and explained that his failure to respond to them was due to him changing law offices.  According to the complaint, when Gruber met with his clients on April 14, 2014, he falsely told them that the negligence case was still on-going and would be settled for $50,000 in the next few weeks.

In May of 2015, after not having heard anything further, the clients call Gruber "about a dozen times" but did not receive a return call.  The clients filed their second grievance against Gruber on July 14, 2015. 

Ethics presenter (prosecutor) Michael J. Wietrzychowski of Cherry Hill said that he received false information from Gruber the first time he interviewed him on November 23, 2015.  In a second interview held on January 13, 2016,  Wietrzychowski said that Gruber admitted that he "panicked" and lied during the first interview.

In his formal response to the ethics complaint, Gruber said that his behavior was aberrant and was caused by "a difficult separation and upcoming divorce from his wife which led to stupid and panicky decisions" that were "confined to this particular case."  He also attributed his behavior to his involvement in a "partnership with Samuel Merovitz and David Cedar (which has since been disbanded) which was fraught with contention and lack of success."  In what he called a "stupid business mistake," the new partnership allegedly sunk him into debt which put him under "great mental strain" that led to discord in his marriage.

In an expression of contrition, Gruber told ethics authorities that he "will accept discipline for [his] actions as they were inexcusable."  He said he wanted a hearing "to lay out the issues in a more cogent fashion in an effort to explain the issues but more importantly allow the Ethics Committee to understand that his can and will never happen again."

Both the complaint and Gruber's answer in District IIIB Ethics Committee v. Saul Gruber, Esq., Docket No. IIIB-2015-0040E are online at the link above.

In ethics matters, the burden is on the disciplinary system to prove its case.  At this point, the charges are merely allegations--nothing has been proven.

Since 1995, attorney disciplinary hearings have been open to the public.  Anyone who is interested in being notified in advance of any hearings on this matter may complete and send a hearing request form to the District IIIB Ethics Committee in care of Secretary Cynthia S. Earl via fax to 856-642-7471.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Cumberland Juvenile Detention guards accused of making boys fight for their entertainment.

In a lawsuit filed on March 29, 2016, a twenty-year old Middlesex County man said that he was made to fight other inmates "for the enjoyment and entertainment of Cumberland County Detention Center guards" when he was 15 and incarcerated at the Center.

Edward Scanlon, IV, said that he "suffered serious injuries" at the Sunnyslope Drive, Bridgeton facility and claimed that guards and jail officials subjected him to a "blatant abuse of power and authority and inhumane and punitive treatment."  He claimed that he was forced "to fight other inmates as [the guards] sat and watch" and that the guards "even tripped [him] several times."

Named in Scanlon's lawsuit are Valeria Lawson, Executive Director of the New Jersey Juvenile Justice Commission; Felix Mickens, the Commission's Deputy Executive Director of Operations; Detention Center Warden Robert Balicki; Detention Center heads Veronica Surrency and Michael Baruzza and several "John Doe" defendants.

The lawsuit was originally filed in Cumberland County Superior Court but was later transferred to the United States District Court where it bears Case No. 1:16-cv-04465.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Montclair attorney, judge charged with trust account violations

On October 24, 2016, the Office of Attorney Ethics (OAE) filed a formal complaint against a Montclair attorney and municipal court judge for having "knowingly invaded [his clients'] settlement funds, which he should have been safeguarding."

The complaint is against Kenneth C. Strait, Jr., who was appointed as Montclair's municipal court judge on September 21, 2013 and who has served the Township in various capacities, including as prosecutor and public defender, since 2007.  Strait maintains a law office at 7 Park Street, Montclair and presently makes $79,939.86 for serving as Montclair's presiding municipal court judge.

The ethics complaint accuses Strait of transferring $2,145.00 that he was safeguarding for his client from his trust account to his business account without his client's permission.  The complaint alleges that Strait "immediately drew upon the $2,145.00 deposited funds for various expenses, including 'Paychex' and a $700.00 draw made payable to himself."  He later used funds received from another client matter to replace the $2,145 that he reportedly had taken. 

When confronted by the OAE, Strait allegedly claimed that the $2,145.00 represented "legal fees for a divorce he was going to handle" for his client.  The OAE said that this was a fabrication and tacked on a charge of violating R.P.C. 8.1(a), which prohibits lawyers from making false statements to ethics authorities.

Strait is also charged with double-paying himself a $3,000 in fees on a client's matter.  This double payment allegedly caused him to write a rubber trust account check for $4,060 to another client.  The OAE said that double-payment was not an error but that Strait knew what he was doing.

Strait's legal career has been rocky.  He was originally denied admission to practice law because of his history of criminal conduct and addiction to chemical substances.  But, in an August 2, 1990 decision, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that Strait "has overcome his dependency on drugs and alcohol [and] we are satisfied that Strait deserves an opportunity to practice law."

In 2011, Strait was reprimanded for using the credit card of a client--a seventy-six year old woman who he regarded as his "surrogate mother"--and running the balance up past the $36,000 credit limit.  The woman reportedly didn't know how high the balance was until she "received a collection call from American Express."  According to the Disciplinary Review Board's decision, Strait "assured [the woman] the he would make the account current, but failed to do so."  He then reportedly stopped taking the woman's phone calls.

In ethics matters, the burden is on the disciplinary system to prove its case.  At this point, the charges are merely allegations--nothing has been proven.

Since 1995, attorney disciplinary hearings have been open to the public.  Anyone who is interested in being notified in advance of any hearings on this matter may complete and send a hearing request form to the Office of Attorney Ethics in care of Barbara Cristofaro via fax to 609-530-5238.

Monmouth prosecutor confirms criminal probe into Asbury Park lawyer.

In a November 16, 2016 letter, Assistant Monmouth County Prosecutor Michael J. Costanzo confirmed that his office is conducting an investigation into Asbury Park attorney William B. Gallagher.  Gallagher, who became a lawyer in 1968 and maintained his law office at 1321 Memorial Drive, Asbury Park, is the subject of a multi-count ethics complaint being prosecuted by the Office of Attorney Ethics.

One of the ethics counts against Gallagher alleged that he knowingly misappropriated a $60,000 settlement from a 90-year-old woman whose main source of income is social security.  This caused me to formally complain to the Monmouth County Prosecutor's Office and the Asbury Park Police Department.  In my July 16, 2016 letter to both of those agencies, I noted my concern that the Office of Attorney Ethics may not routinely notify law enforcement when ethics violations also constitute possible criminal wrongdoing.  "Unless someone reports, it is possible that wrongdoing would go unpunished simply because the proper law enforcement agencies were not informed of the issue," I wrote. According to state records, Gallagher is currently suspended from practicing law.

Gallagher appears to be the same attorney who formerly served the Borough of Lake Como (formerly South Belmar) for many years as Borough Attorney.  In his 2014 Financial Disclosure Statement, Gallagher listed 1321 Memorial Drive as his office address. 

Camden Judge upholds county investigator's firing.

On September 28, 2016, Camden County Superior Court Judge Anthony M. Pugliese ruled that "the findings of the Hearing Officer and the disciplinary removal of" a female investigator in the Camden County Prosecutor's Office "were justified and should not be disturbed."

Pugliese's ruling resolved a September 17, 2014 civil complaint filed by former investigator Helen Ann Legatie.  Legatie, who was hired by the prosecutor's office in 2010, claimed that her supervisors, Chief Judith Berry and Sergeant Cathy Fisher, continually harassed and belittled her.  She claimed that Fisher had called her at the hospital one day after she gave birth by C-section and demanded that she complete on-line training. According to the lawsuit, both Berry and Fisher were disciplined for this alleged act of harassment.

According to the lawsuit, Legatie's relationship with the prosecutor's office remained rocky and resulted in her transfer to the police academy, which Legatie regarded as "a demotion" to "essentially a gym teacher position."  She alleged that a short while after the transfer she suffered a "severe emotional breakdown . . . which resulted in her utilizing 911 to seek mediation with a domestic issue with her fiancĂ©, who was also a police officer."  While there are many intervening details (see the complaint at the link above), Legatie was ultimately terminated from her position on August 19, 2014.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Whistleblower suit filed against Spotswood school board by former Learning Disabilities Teacher.

In a July 8, 2016 lawsuit, a Learning Disabilities Teacher/Consultant accused the Spotswood Board of Education (Middlesex County) of retaliating against him for reporting what he called the Board's "unlawful and unethical practices regarding the education of students with disabilities."

In his lawsuit, Anwar Al-Najjar, who was employed by the Spotswood Board since October 2006, said that school officials cut his hours to punish him for objecting in 2014 to a disabled student being placed in a classroom by himself with no other classmates.  Al-Najjar said moving the student out of district and placing him in a classroom with other students would provide him with "the least restrictive learning environment" and that Spotswood officials' treatment of the student "violated State and Federal law, rules and regulations."  Despite his objection, he said that school officials assigned the student's case to another member of the Child Study Team and "forced [the student] to attend school in a classroom by himself for most of the 2014-2015 school year. " 

He claimed that his objections regarding this student prompted Spotswood school officials to cut his summer work schedule from 24 to 10 days and refuse to hire him for other positions for which he was qualified.  He also claimed that two other teachers disagreed with district officials' placement of the student and that both of them were terminated from employment.

Al-Najjar also claimed that he was "troubled" by an August 2015 phone call from Director of Special Services Chris Harry who directed him to place a student in the In-Class Resource Program.  Al-Najjar said that the student should have been placed in mainstream classes and that the student's parents were not consulted about the placement.  He said that he angered Harry by meeting with the parents and then giving them Harry's telephone number so that could call him "to express their displeasure" with the placement decision.

Al-Najjar said that he spoke about his concerns to Board President Dulce Branco-Rivera who told him to put his concerns in writing to Superintendent Scott Rocco.  Al-Najjar said that he declined to write to Rocco because he was fearful that the retaliation would escalate.

He claimed that by the Fall of 2015 the retaliation reached a point where his "working environment was intimidating, hostile or abusive."  He said that on May 3, 2016, his Learning Disabilities Teacher/Consultant position was abolished even though the District is required by law to have somebody in that position.  Although Al-Najjar said that he was told that he could work until the end of the school year, he was placed on administrative leave on May 4, 2016 and prohibited from entering upon District property.

Al-Najjar's lawsuit is captioned Al-Najjar v. The Board of Education of Spotwood, Docket No. MID-L-4026-16 and Al-Najjar's lawsuit is being respresented by Steven Siegler of Warren. 

Al-Najjar's claims are only allegations and the burden is upon Al-Najjar to prove his allegations at trial. 

Friday, November 11, 2016

Hackensack lawyer faces conflict of interest charges.

On October 18, 2016, a Bergen County attorney ethics committee claimed that a Hackensack lawyer violated the Rules of Professional Conduct by simultaneously representing two warring partners in a business enterprise.  In his November 1, 2016 answer to the charges, the lawyer said that he did nothing wrong because he represented only the business entity and not the two partners individually.

The lawyer at issue is Francis Kirk, who used to be with the Newark firm of McCarter & English until moving over to Tessler & Cohen of Hackensack in early 2014.  Ethics prosecutor Cathe McAuliffe claimed that Kirk represented Kevin Schmidt "on many occasions regarding his business pursuits and personally in a foreclosure action" and also represented Schmidt in a foreclosure against his personal residence.

Schmidt was the sole owner of a business named Ice Boxx, LLC until he sold a controlling share of the company in 2013 to Michael Williams.  According to the ethics complaint, Kirk simultaneously represented both Schmidt and Williams even though their relationship deteriorated and each man's interests became adverse to the other.

In his answer to the complaint, Kirk claimed that he never represented Schmidt personally (except for the foreclosure case) and that his client was Iceboxx, LLC rather than Schmidt himself.  "[T]his is not a situation in which I previously represented Mr. Schmidt in matters adverse to Iceboxx, LLC and thereafter switched sides," Kirk wrote in his answer.  As for the foreclosure matter, Kirk wrote that "nothing that I learned in that mortgage foreclosure action has any bearing on Iceboxx, LLC."

Kirk wrote that Schmidt filed the ethics grievance because he is "apparently aggrieved" because Kirk had filed a lawsuit on Iceboxx, LLC's behalf seeking an injunction against Schmidt who, according to the Kirk's answer, "damaged Company property, paid personal expenses through Company funds, misappropriated corporate opportunities, and locked the Company's members and employees out of the business premises and put the Company's inventory at risk."  Kirk noteed however, that Schmidt had successfully moved to have Kirk's firm disqualified from prosecuting the lawsuit.  Kirk wrote that the court granted Schmidt's motion "out of an abundance of caution."

The ethics charges are only allegations--nothing has been proven--and Kirk is presumed to have not committed a violation until otherwise determined.  Also, Kirk's allegations against Schmidt remain unproven although there may be some documents in the Iceboxx, LLC v. Schmidt, Docket No. BER-C-201-14 case file that might shed some light on what had occurred.  That file can be obtained from the New Jersey Judiciary. 

Since 1995, attorney disciplinary hearings have been open to the public.  Anyone who is interested in being notified in advance of any hearings on this matter may complete and send a hearing request form to District IIB Ethics Committee Secretary Nina C. Remson via e-mail to BergenEthics@co.bergen.nj.us   

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Burlington Lawyer charged with lying to adversary about witness' attendance at deposition.

In an unusual attorney disciplinary case, the District IIIA Ethics Committee on September 30, 2016 filed a formal complaint against a Mount Laurel attorney who allegedly told his adversary that a witness had not appeared for a deposition when he actually had appeared.

According to the complaint (District IIIA Ethics Committee v. Daniel Silverman, Esq., Docket No. IIIA-2015-022E), Daniel T. Silverman of the firm of Costello & Mains, PC was representing the plaintiff in an employment lawsuit pending in the Camden County Superior Court.  The attorney for the defendant, Laura D. Ruccolo of the Mount Laurel firm of Capehart & Scatchard, allegedly appeared at Silverman's office on March 11, 2014 to attend the scheduled deposition of witness George Fazekas.

According to the complaint, Fazekas was present for the deposition but Silverman told Ruccolo that Fazekas had not arrived and that he didn't know why.  After Ruccolo left his office, Silverman allegedly proceeded to take Fazekas' deposition outside of Ruccolo's presence.

When Ruccolo notified Silverman that she had issued a subpoena to compel Fazekas' deposition, Silverman allegedly told her that Fazekas was now his client and subsequently produced a transcript of Fazekas' March 11, 2014 deposition.  Ruccolo then filed a motion seeking to force Fazekas to appear for a deposition, to bar the deposition that Silverman had conducted without her and to sanction Silverman for his conduct. 

When Judge John A. Fratto heard Ruccolo's motion, Silverman allegedly stated in court that he was not specific with Ruccolo about Fazekas' presence on March 11th "because I was about to interview Mr. Fazekas on my own, not under oath, not under any force to require him to answer my question and I didn't feel it necessary to disclose my attorney work product to her."  He also allegedly admitted to Judge Fratto that he didn't really represent Mr. Fazekas.

Silverman is accused of violation several Rules of Professional Conduct including obstructing another party's access to evidence, making a false statement of material fact to a third person and engaging in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation. 

At the time of this writing, Silverman had not yet filed an answer to the complaint.  The ethics charges are only allegations--nothing has been proven--and Silverman is entitled to hearing. Silverman has been requested to supply a copy of his answer which, if received, will be posted as an update to this article.

Since 1995, attorney disciplinary hearings have been open to the public.  Anyone who is interested in being notified in advance of any hearings on this matter may complete and send a hearing request form to District IIIA Ethics Committee Secretary Steven Secare via fax to 732-349-9293.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Belleville: Two shoplifting investigations, one past and one current, involving police officers.

Update May 11, 2017: In March 2017, the Township of Belleville and former police officer Wanda Posada-Vallese entered into a confidential settlement agreement that resolved administrative charges "arising out of incident on or about December 31, 2015" as well as "a prior matter concerning a lottery ticket at a drug store."  Belleville agreed to pay Posada-Vallese for twenty accrued vacation days and dismiss all administrative charges against her.  Posada-Vallese agreed to retire and to dismiss an action that she had filed against the Township with the Civil Service Commission.  Under the agreement, Posada-Vallese retained her right to pursue three pending Worker Compensation claims against the Township and the Township agreed not to oppose her application to the New Jersey Division of Pensions and Benefits for retirement and health benefits.  Notably, Posada-Vallese agreed to "enter her plea to a Disorderly Persons Complaint on or about March 23, 2017."  An OPRA request has been made for the complaint underlying this plea and this article will be updated upon receipt.  Also, see an April 29, 2017 newspaper articleUpdate May 22, 2017: See information on summons and complaint here.
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At about 2:20 p.m. on December 31, 2015, the owner of a Belleville (Essex County) liquor store told Belleville Patrolman Jerry Aquino that a woman who said that she was a Belleville police officer stole a $50 bottle of tequila.  According to an incident report, the owner had called police when he realized that a bottle of Don Julio Anejo tequila was missing and after a check of surveillance video showed the woman paying for one bottle of tequila with her credit card while slipping another bottle in her purse.  Aquino notified two sergeants who responded to the scene.

Even though police have the video recording and a copy of the woman's credit card receipt, no criminal charges have yet been filed.  According to an October 19, 2016 memo, "the case has been turned over to Essex County Prosecutor's Office [and] a complaint is pending a decision by that office."

Authorities have not released the name of the alleged shoplifter nor have they confirmed whether or not she is a Belleville police officer.  But, the fact that two police sergeants were dispatched to a $50 shoplifting incident together with the absence of a criminal complaint ten months later suggest that this was not a run of the mill shoplifting investigation.

This would not the first time that a female Belleville officer has been accused of shoplifting.  On June 6, 2006, Officer Wanda Posada-Vallese, who was then known as Wanda Scheumeister (and later as Wanda Posada), was charged in State v. Wanda Scheumeister, Summons No. S-2006-000030 with shoplifting about $60 worth of mosquito repellent and lawn edging from a local K-Mart store where she was working while wearing her uniform.  According to the complaint, Posada-Vallese pleaded guilty on September 21, 2006 to an amended charge of loitering and paid $533 in fines and costs.

The police had a pretty strong case against Posada-Vallese including statements by a K-Mart clerk who said that Posada-Vallese had tricked her into leaving her post while she secreted the items into a bag, a security officer who said that he observed Posada-Vallese run the items over a sensor pad to prevent the alarm sensors from activating and a security manager who said that Posada-Vallese lied by telling him that she had placed $60 for the items on the service counter when the video recording showed that she had not.  The clerk recalled that she had seen Posada-Vallese pay for one baby gate but leave the store with two and pay for one Christmas wreath but leave with two.

On October 26, 2006, Posada-Vallese filed a discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in which she complained that that she was "wrongfully accused of shoplifting" and that she remained suspended even though the charges resulted in a loitering conviction.  She said that male officers were not punished as severely even though they "have had similar or greater charges brought against them."  She also claimed that Belleville officials discriminated against her because she was female and Hispanic.

In its November 30, 2006 response to the EEOC, Belleville defended its immediate suspension of Posada-Vallese and denied that her gender or national origin had any bearing on its decision.  It also enclosed a copy of Police Chief Joseph P. Rotonda's September 11, 2006 letter to the New Jersey Department of Personnel that also defended the imposition of an immediate suspension.

The EEOC complaint was settled on March 30, 2007 with Posada-Vallese agreeing to accept an unpaid suspension from June 7, 2006 to October 8, 2006 and being reassigned to the Patrol Division where she would serve a probationary period of six months.  The Township agreed to pay Posada-Vallese back pay from October 8, 2006 to March 8, 2007.  A March 9, 2007 settlement of the disciplinary charges clarified that Posada-Vallese would use 22.5 days of accrued personal and vacation days toward the period for which she was receiving back pay and that she would not lose any seniority rights due to the incident.

According to an October 18, 2016 memo, Posada-Vallese has over seventeen years on the police force and is presently making $94,945 per year.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Perth Amboy attorney/judge charged by ethics authorities with convincing widow to give unsecured loans to a woman who had borne the lawyer's child.

On August 1, 2016, the District VIII Ethics Committee, an arm of the New Jersey Supreme Court's attorney disciplinary function, filed a formal ethics complaint against a Perth Amboy-based attorney who serves as one of the City's municipal court judge as well as a judge in neighboring Woodbridge Township.  The complaint alleges that the lawyer convinced an Edison widow to lend $790,000 she received from life insurance and a wrongful death lawsuit settlement to a woman with whom the lawyer had a sexual relationship out of which a child was born.  The lawyer is also charged with billing the widow $80,000 for the "minimal service" of filing a $250,000 double-indemnity claim against her deceased husband's life insurance company.

The complaint, Docket No. VIII-2016-00002E, alleges that Emery Z. Toth, who maintains an office on Maple Street in Perth Amboy, introduced Marybeth DeHanes of Edison, whose husband died in 1992, to Carol Gronczewski.  Toth allegedly had been intimately involved with Gronczewski since the late 1970s and fathered Gronczewski's child.  Yet, according to the complaint, Toth never disclosed to DeHanes his relationship with Gronczewski and DeHanes, at Toth's suggestion, lent $290,000 in 1993 to Gronczewski's company, CG Investment Realty.  The loan was supposed to be secured by a mortgage on an Edison property but, according to the complaint, "a mortgage was never filed to protect the interests of [Gronczewski]."

Toth is listed on Woodbridge Township's website as being one of the Township's four municipal court judges and on Perth Amboy's site as being one of three judges.  According to the ethics complaint, Toth has been practicing law since 1974.

After a different lawyer won a $2,000,000 wrongful death lawsuit in favor of DeHanes' deceased husband's estate, Toth allegedly advised DeHanes to invest her $500,000 share of the settlement with Gronczewski in 2000.  Again, DeHanes was allegedly led to believe that her investment was secured by a mortgage that "was never filed."

Separately, the lawyer who obtained the wrongful death settlement advised DeHanes that she was entitled to double-indemnity on her deceased husband's life insurance policy.  Toth allegedly contacted the insurance carrier and received an additional $250,000 and then told DeHanes that she owed him $80,000 for his services in obtaining the $250,000 insurance check.  According to the complaint, DeHanes paid Toth $80,000 "for the minimal services that he rendered in obtaining the extra $250,000" which was writing a "'few letters' to the insurance carrier."

Toth has had a previous brush with ethics officials. On January 5, 2009, the Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct filed a formal complaint against him for sentencing a man to 180 days in jail for a contempt charge without affording him an opportunity to respond and without staying the sentence for five days to give the man a chance to appeal.  According to press reports, Toth received a reprimand from the New Jersey Supreme Court.

At the time of this writing, Toth had not yet filed an answer to the complaint.  The ethics charges are only allegations--nothing has been proven--and Toth is entitled to hearing.

Since 1995, attorney disciplinary hearings have been open to the public.  Anyone who is interested in being notified in advance of any hearings on this matter may complete and send a hearing request form to District VIII Ethics Committee Secretary Barry J. Muller via fax to 609-896-1469.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Kearny admits to at least five year delay in transcribing its Town Council closed session minutes. Blames lack of staffing and municipal budget woes.

In her October 20, 2016 response to a Government Records Council (GRC) Denial of Access Complaint, Patricia Carpenter, Clerk of the Town of Kearny (Hudson County), admitted that her office has not yet transcribed the minutes of Town Council nonpublic (closed or executive) meetings held as early as September 8, 2011.

In her Statement of Information (SOI) to the GRC, Carpenter wrote:
The Closed/Executive Session meeting minutes requested have not been released because they have not been transcribed. Therefore, they were not available for release when the request was received.

The Town of Kearny's municipal budget over the years in question suffered a reduction in staffing in all departments which ultimately had a negative impact on the Town Clerk's office and the many essential functions within the department.

Without the necessary staffing in the Clerk's Office due to budget constraints, the transcription of the Closed/Executive Session minutes have been delayed.
Currently, the fiscal condition of the Town of Kearny has improved and the necessary staffing should be in place to provide the requested documents by November 15, 2016.
The complaint to which Carpenter responded, Libertarians for Transparent Government (LFTG) v. Town of Kearny, GRC Complaint No. 2016-261, referenced two Open Public Records Act (OPRA) requests that Carpenter's office acknowledged but then abandoned.  In its May 10, 2016 request, LFTG requested five sets of closed minutes and resolutions, including those from September 8, 2011.  Carpenter disclosed the resolutions on May 17, 2016 but said that "additional time [is] required" to produce the minutes.  Carpenter had not responded further on that request when LFTG filed its Denial of Access Complaint on September 19, 2016. 

The other request, filed on June 6, 2016, asked for the Kearny Town Council's  March 25, 2008; April 9, 2013 and May 8, 2012 closed session resolutions and minutes and, if none existed, "the minutes of the three most recently held Town Council closed sessions for which minutes can be disclosed in whole or in part."  Again, Carpenter told LFTG that she needed additional time and then took no further action to fulfill the request.  Carpenter's October 20, 2016 response to the GRC did not explain why Carpenter's office failed to disclose any of the records sought in the June 6, 2016 request.

According to the Open Public Meetings Act, N.J.S.A. 10:4-14, government agencies, including municipal governing bodies, are required to make the non-exempt portions of their closed meeting minutes "promptly available" to the public.

LFTG is being represented in this matter by Ted M. Rosenberg of Moorestown.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Appellate court reverses revocation of handgun carry permit by Middlesex judge who gave no notice to the permit's holder.

In an October 7, 2016 written opinion, the Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court reversed a Middlesex County judge's order that revoked an armored car driver's limited permit to carry a handgun because the permit holder was not given notice of the revocation proceeding and was thus deprived of "an opportunity to be heard."

According to the opinion, Rickey R. Duncanson of Carteret, who worked as a driver and guard for the Garda armored car service, applied in November 2014 to renew his "two-year limited permit to carry a handgun" that was set to expire on January 28, 2015.  The permit allowed Duncanson to carry a handgun during his work assignments and "while proceeding directly to and from work assignments and at no other time or place."  The Superior Court granted Duncanson's application which had been approved by the New Jersey State Police.

But, on January 21, 2015, a Middlesex County Superior Court judge conducted a proceeding without having notified Duncanson, the State Police or the Middlesex County Prosecutor.  During the proceeding, the judge said that he had learned that the permit "had been altered to appear to give Duncanson the unlimited ability to carry a handgun."  After the proceeding, the judge issued an order and mailed it to Duncanson.  The judge based his decision on "public health, safety and welfare" concerns. 

The Appellate Division made no ruling on whether Duncanson's permit should ultimately be renewed.  Rather, the court held only that the judge's "after the fact denial of his application" violated Duncanson's right to due process of law.  The case was remanded back to the same judge with instructions to hold an evidentiary hearing.

Appellate Division decisions never identify judges who are reversed but often identify and praise those whose rulings are affirmed.  I believe that all judges whose rulings are subjected to appeal should be publicly identified.  Accordingly, an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request was made to the Middlesex County Prosecutor's Office for the order from which Duncanson's appeal was taken.  The response to the OPRA request disclosed that the revocation order was entered by Judge Joseph L. Rea.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

A Hunterdon County lawyer's $67.10 overdrawn trust account led to multiple ethics charges being brought against him.

When a New Jersey lawyer overdraws his or her trust account, Court Rule 1:21-6(b) requires the bank to notify the Office of Attorney Ethics (OAE).  When TD Bank notified the OAE that a Clinton lawyer's trust account was overdrawn by $67.10, the OAE's investigation discovered a lot more than just a minor bookkeeping error.

The January 7, 2015, $67.10 overdraft of Paul F. Clausen's trust account was caused by his withdraw of $250 for fees that he had earned on a case.  But an attorney's fees are supposed to deposited and withdrawn from the lawyer's business account.  A trust account is for money that the lawyer is holding in trust for others.  According to the September 27, 2016 ethics complaint, (Office of Attorney Ethics v. Paul F. Clausen, Docket Nos. XIV-2015-0016E and XIV-2015-0374E), the OAE's investigation revealed 77 instances where Clausen withdrew his fees directly from the trust account, sometimes by way of cash withdraws, rather than issuing a check payable to his business account. 

Ethics officials claim that Clausen was less than truthful when he appeared at the OAE's office on April 23, 2015 for a demand audit.  According to the complaint, Clausen told ethics officials that he had never filed bankruptcy even though court records show that Clausen's Chapter 13 bankruptcy petition had been dismissed only on August 17, 2015--only days before.  The complaint also alleges that Clausen lied about withdrawing cash from his trust account--an act that is specifically prohibited by the court rules--when the bank statements showed multiple $100 cash withdraws having been made from Clausen's trust account. 

Ethics officials claim that while Clausen had a business account, it was frequently overdrawn and that Clausen used his trust account for his business transactions because wanted to avoid having the bank take overdraft fees out of any money he deposited into the business account.  The OAE alleges that Clausen also kept his business account's balance at zero to frustrate his judgment creditors' attempts to levy against his bank accounts.  According to the complaint, three creditors, including a woman named Grace Casement who took a $29,254 default judgment in her malpractice suit against Clausen, attempted to levy on the business account only to find that there was no money in it.

According to the ethics complaint, Clausen's landlord, Meridian Property Group, which also had a judgment against him for unpaid office rent, also unsuccessfully levied against the empty business account.  Meridian, however, was able to execute against Clausen's 2004 Lexus ES330 and have it sold at public auction.  According to the ethics complaint, within a month after his Lexus' seizure, Clausen deposited a $4,500 retainer in his trust account and made a $4,100 cash withdraw from the trust account to make a deposit on another car.

In sum, the OAE alleged that Clausen's "deposit of his earned and unearned legal fees in his trust account and subsequent cash withdrawals therefrom was intended to insulate [Clausen's] personal assets and to attempt to place them beyond the reach of his creditors."

The complaint also accuses Clausen of misleading ethics officials into believing that he had made multiple payments to Casement, the malpractice plaintiff, when he actually had made only one $1,000 payment.  The Supreme Court reprimanded Clausen on January 12, 2016 for gross negligence because he failed to file Casement's personal injury lawsuit before the statute of limitations had run.

At the time of this writing, Clausen had not yet filed an answer to the complaint.  The ethics charges are only allegations--nothing has been proven--and Clausen is entitled to hearing.

Since 1995, attorney disciplinary hearings have been open to the public.  Anyone who is interested in being notified in advance of any hearings on this matter may complete and send a hearing request form to the Office of Attorney Ethics in care of Barbara Cristofaro via fax to 609-530-5238.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Court tosses Firemen's Association president's defamation suit against NJ Fireman's Home.

George H. Heflich, Sr.
On March 18, 2016, Morris County Superior Court Judge Robert J. Brennan ordered the attorney for a past president of the New Jersey State Firemen's Association to pay $3,465 toward the attorney fees expended by the New Jersey Firemen's Home and several members of the Home's Board of Managers to stave off the president's unsuccessful defamation lawsuit.

Former New Jersey State Firemen's Association President George H. Heflich, Sr., who recently lost his reelection bid at the Association's September 2016 convention in Wildwood, filed a lawsuit on January 7, 2015 against the New Jersey Firemen's Home, the Home's superintendent Hugh E. Flood and Oscar Dutch, Jr., Kenneth Silvestri, Harry T. Strube, Harry Dedreu, Anthony Grenci, Philip Valese,: Cassmiro Delaurentis, Jr., Thomas J. Murray, Jr., Anthony Frato, Sr., Robert W. Sanders, Thomas Miserendino, James A. Matthews, Gregory D. Leonberg, Sr., Gilbert W. Lugossy, Thomas G. Sutphen and Lester V. Denny who are all members of the Home's Board of Managers.  Heflich's lawsuit claimed that he was a whistle blower and that the defendants took action "with the purpose to degrade and humiliate" him.

At the bottom of Heflich's complaint was a January 11, 2014 resolution passed by the Home's Board of Managers that ordered Heflich to "issue letters of apology" to unnamed Home employees that Heflich allegedly harassed.  The resolution also called upon Heflich to attend "a specialized training seminar for sensitivity awareness" and "publicly admonished, censured and reprimanded" Heflich "for his [alleged] inappropriate and unprofessional conduct toward" the Home's staff and officials.

In response to Heflich's lawsuit, the Home and its Board of Managers, through Newark attorney Peter F. Berk, filed a Motion to Dismiss.  In a June 17, 2015 Order, Superior Court Judge Rosemary E. Ramsey agreed and dismissed Heflich's complaint.  Judge Brennan's March 18, 2016 Order required Heflich's attorney, Mark W. Catanzaro of Mount Holly, to pay $3,465 toward the $14,000 in attorney fees the defendants sought.  Judge Brennan's order cited Court Rule 1:4-8(b), entitled "Frivolous Litigation" which allows parties to civil lawsuits to recover their attorney fees from other parties.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Lawsuit claims that RVCC officials engaged in "unlawful and fraudulent" conduct.

On May 25, 2016, the former head of the Massage Therapy Program filed suit against her former employer, Raritan Valley Community College (RVCC), claiming that she was fired after raising concerns that college officials "perpetrated a fraud" by "improperly receiving grant funds" from state and federal agencies.

In her lawsuit, Marlene Hudson claimed that she was surprised when she was asked to produce curriculum materials for the massage therapy program when she was hired in 2015 because RVCC had been receiving state and federal grants for the program "for several years."

She said that Jacki Belin, RVCC's Vice President for Strategic Programs & Development, "responded angrily" during a September 2015 when Hudson raised her concerns.  Hudson claimed that she was fired at an October 30, 2015 meeting at which Belin, Workforce Director Michelle Boronkas, Vice President of Human Resources & Labor Relations Nancy Moore and Human Resources Director Cheryl Wallace were present.

The allegations in Hudson's complaint are merely allegations--nothing has been proven--and the burden of proof is on Hudson. The matter will either be settled or proceed to a trial.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Ethics charges brought against South Amboy attorney who counsels two local housing authorities.

On August 26, 2016, the New Jersey Office of Attorney Ethics filed a formal complaint against a South Amboy attorney who allegedly held onto $249,621.60 from a September 27, 2013 real estate sale until finally releasing it to his client on March 24, 2015.  According to the same lawyer's April 11, 2016 Financial Disclosure Statement, he serves as counsel to the Middlesex County Board of Social Services, the Old Bridge Housing & Redevelopment Authority and the South Amboy Housing Authority.

According to the complaint, Thomas E. Downs, IV, who maintains an office at 415 Main Street in South Amboy, was retained to distribute the assets of the estate of Joseph Makara who passed away on March 5, 2013.  One of Makara's assets was real estate in the Parlin section of Sayreville that was sold on September 27, 2013.  Downs deposited the $252,051.93 in sale proceeds into his trust account and, in a series of checks written between September 27, 2013 and February 13, 2014, paid himself $11,250 in legal fees out of those proceeds.. 

According to the ethics complaint, there was little contact between Letitia Makara, the decedent's sister and executrix of his estate, and Downs during the Spring and Summer of 2014 because of Downs' "busy trial schedule."  Ms. Makara's numerous requests to Downs for an account of the estate's funds were allegedly unanswered.  Ms. Makara hired another attorney, Avram Segall, to get an accounting from Downs.  According to the complaint, Downs failed to respond to two letters that Segall had sent him.

It was only after Ms. Makara filed an ethics grievance on February 18, 2015 that Downs finally responded.  According to the complaint, Downs sent Segall $249,621.60 which included the $11,250 in fees that Downs had previously paid to himself.  $1,485 of the difference between the amount Downs received and distributed was spent for the internment of Mr. Makara's ashes.

The ethics complaint, signed by Office of Attorney Ethics Director Charles Centinaro, charges Downs with gross neglect, lack of diligence and failure to communicate with his client.

This isn't Downs' first brush with the attorney disciplinary system.  On March 26, 2016, he was censured for having failed to promptly return $2,500 to a client and for failing to cooperate with ethics authorities.  On April 19, 2013, Downs was admonished for failing to communicate with his client and refusing to cooperate with ethics authorities. 

This is only a summary of the complaint and readers who want more information and context are directed to the filed documents which are on-line at the links above. None of the allegations against Downs have been proven. The charges will be tried before an ethics panel and the burden is on the ethics authorities to prove their allegations.

At the time of this writing, Downs had not yet filed an answer to the complaint.  He has been invited to submit a copy of his answer and if he provides it, his answer will be included in this article.

Since 1995, attorney disciplinary hearings have been open to the public.  Anyone who is interested in being notified in advance of any hearings on this matter may complete and send a hearing request form to the Office of Attorney Ethics in care of Barbara Cristofaro via fax to 609-530-5238.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Rumson Police Sergeant files whistleblower lawsuit.

On June 20, 2016, a 20-year veteran with the Rumson Police Department, who has been a sergeant for eleven years, filed a whistleblower lawsuit against the Borough of Rumson (Monmouth County).  Unfortunately, the lawsuit is short on details about the allegedly criminal or unethical acts that the sergeant said that he observed at the police department on May 31, 2015

In his lawsuit, Sergeant Peter Koenig, represented by Richard P. Flaum of Warren, said that he witnessed some events at the police department on May 31, 2015 "that he reasonably and objectively believed were in violation of law, may have been criminal acts or unethical, were a violation of the public policy of the State of New Jersey, and placed the health and safety of members of the public in danger."  After he reported what he witnessed to "to a governmental agency" that was not the Borough of Rumson, he began to suffer discriminatory and retaliatory treatment including being required to take a sham fit-for-duty examination, being stripped of administrative duties and functions and being wrongly investigated and disciplined by the Internal Affairs unit.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Sussex Corrections Lieutenant forfeits pension over steroid charges.

At its March 14, 2016 meeting, the Police and Firemen's Retirement System (PFRS) Board of Trustees voted to totally forfeit a former Sussex County Corrections Lieutenant's pension benefits because of his "egregious misconduct" of "purchas[ing] illegal steroids for personal use on multiple occasions, and allowing the ongoing sale of such substances on the premises of Sussex County Jail."

The story of steroid use at the Keogh-Dwyer Correctional Facility was first reported by the New Jersey Herald's Bruce A. Scruton in his July 8, 2015 article "Corrections officer suspended after steroid use."  That article, covered the March 2015 arrest of Kevin Cole on steroid and hypodermic needle possession charges.  The article indicated that two other corrections officers were under investigation, but County officials declined to name those officials at that time.

The PFRS minutes, however, show that one of the other officers was Lieutenant Christopher Lynch.  According to the minutes, Lynch "purchased steroids for his personal use from the other officer, and at least once purchased the drugs on the Correctional Facility property." 

The minutes reference an August 10, 2015 settlement agreement between Lynch and the Sussex County Sheriff's Office.  According to the agreement, Lynch tested positive for steroids, was suspended without pay and agreed to be barred from future law enforcement employment in New Jersey.  Lynch also agreed to cooperate in the investigation of charges against other Sheriff's Office employees.

In his response to an Open Public Record Act request, Undersheriff Lee Liddy wrote that Lynch's salary was $109,591 and that he worked for the County from November 15, 1999 until his termination on August 10, 2015.  The PFRS minutes indicate that Lynch was suspended without pay on April 10, 2015.  No criminal charges were brought against Lynch.

Liddy declined to identify the second officer who was, according to Scruton's article, under investigation for steroid use or possession.  In his August 31, 2016 OPRA response, he wrote "there was no separation for the second officer suspended therefore N.J.S.A. 47:1A-10 does not apply, and their Personnel Record is otherwise exempt under N.J.S.A. 47:1A-10.  Therefore, I must deny the request regarding the second officer’s records."

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

South Jersey prison guard suffers partial pension forfeiture after guilty plea that resolved sex offense charges.

At its July 11, 2016 meeting, the Police and Firemen's Retirement System (PFRS) Board of Trustees voted to label a little more than three years of a correction officer's service time as "dishonorable."  This resulted in the officer, who had entered into a 2015 plea deal that resolved charges that he had committed sex offenses against two fourteen year old girls, being denied a service requirement.  The Board, however, found that the officer is still entitled to deferred retirement benefits when he turns 55 in March 2020.

According to an April 10, 2015 plea agreement, former South Woods Prison Senior Corrections Officer Alfred Vargas received a one year term of probation and was required to "undergo a psycho-sexual evaluation" to resolve charges arising out of his interactions with two fourteen year-old girls.  A January 13, 2015 written decision by Cumberland County Superior Court Judge Robert G. Malestein stated that the two girls had reported to police that Vargas had twice placed his penis in their hands while they slept.  The girls said that one incident occurred when they were 14 and the other occurred when they were 16.  One of the girls said that Vargas "had exposed himself to her several times" between the two incidents.  Judge Malestein's January 13, 2015 decision affirmed the Cumberland County Prosecutor's denial of Vargas' bid to enter into the Pretrial Intervention (PTI) program.

According to the PFRS minutes, Vargas was suspended without pay within days after his December 19, 2013 arrest and was ordered to forfeit his public office.  Judge Mary C. Jacobson's November 5, 2015 Order in State v. Vargas, Docket No. MER-L-1777-15, ordered the forfeiture.

Vargas was represented by Robert J. Luther who is "of counsel" to the Haddon Heights law firm of Helmer Conley & Kasselman, PA.  Both Luther and Yaron Helmer, a named partner in the firm, previously served as First Assistant County Prosecutor in the Cumberland County Prosecutor's Office.  Helmer is also facing ethics charges for allegedly working to persuade the Cumberland County Prosecutor's office to threaten criminal charges against two men whose company owed money to Helmer's client.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Woodbridge lawyer accused by ethics authorities of dragging his feet on client's malpractice claim.

On July 25, 2016, the District VIII Ethics Committee filed a formal complaint alleging that a Woodbridge attorney dragged his feet and was grossly negligent in the handling his client's medical malpractice claim.

The complaint--District VIII Ethics Committee v. Ronald Wm. Spevack, Esq., Docket No. VIII-2015-0053--alleges that Ronald Wm. Spevack, who began practicing law in 1964, did not diligently pursue client Charles Logan's medical malpractice claim.  According to the complaint, Logan suffered an alleged instance of malpractice on September 9, 2013 and consulted Spevack about the matter on June 17, 2014.  Spevack recommended that a medical expert--Wendy Weiss of Second Opinion--review Logan's file and Logan paid Second Opinion $1,350 as a retainer for that service.  Spevack reportedly sent Weiss "a portion of [Logan's] medical records and a Wikipedia article" which Weiss, in a July 8, 2014 letter, said were "insufficient" and told Spevack that she needed "complete certified records of Mr. Logan's" September 9, 2013 medical procedure in order to properly evaluate the matter.

According to the ethics complaint, Spevack did nothing further on the case (except issue two unanswered subpoenas to Robert Wood Johnson hospital) until July of 2015 when Logan visited his office and asked for the status of his case.  A week later, Spevack wrote Logan a letter declining to take the case because "the issues of [the doctor's] deviation and negligence are not clear."  But, the ethics complaint noted that at the time Spevack told Logan that the doctor's negligence was unclear, he had yet "provided a full set of medical records for Second Opinion to review" resulting in Spevack apparently having no basis for his statement.

Since the September 8, 2015 deadline for filing the lawsuit was soon approaching, Logan allegedly threatened Spevack with an ethics grievance if he did not file a lawsuit.  Spevack reportedly filed the lawsuit, but listed Logan as a pro se (i.e. appearing without an attorney).  Logan, upon learning that he would need to engage the court and his adversaries without a lawyer, told Spevack "that he would not be able to proceed on that basis."

In mid-October 2015, Weiss, who had finally secured the medical records she needed, found that there was "no foundation for the case."  Logan's lawsuit was eventually dismissed for his failure to file affidavits of merit and to abide by the Tort Claims Act.

In his answer, Spevack claimed that he diligently attempted to get Logan's medical records from Robert Wood Johnson hospital and even paid the hospital's $215 bill for disclosure of the records.  Despite this and several phone calls, the hospital did not promptly release the records.  He also claimed that his pro se filing protected Mr. Logan from losing his right to sue and gave him several more months to secure an affidavit of merit so that the case could continue.  And, since the case was ultimately found to not be viable, Logan suffered no loss even if Spevack's manner of handling the case was subpar.

This is only a summary of the complaint and answer and readers who want more information and context are directed to the filed documents which are on-line at the link above. None of the allegations against Spevack have been proven. The charges will be tried before an ethics panel and the burden is on the ethics authorities to prove their allegations.

Since 1995, attorney disciplinary hearings have been open to the public.  Anyone who is interested in being notified in advance of any hearings on this matter may complete and send a hearing request form to District VIII Ethics Committee Secretary Barry J. Muller via fax to 609-896-1469.

Lawyer, formerly of Scotch Plains, charged by ethics authorities with $40,000 escrow violation.

On July 6, 2016, the Office of Attorney Ethics (OAE) filed a formal complaint alleging that an attorney who formerly practiced in Scotch Plains improperly disbursed $40,000 that she was holding in escrow for a real estate purchaser and then "misrepresented that she was still in possession of the $40,000 when, in fact, the money had already been disbursed to others." 

The complaint is against Annette P. Alfano, who ran a one-woman law office at 1812 Front Street in Scotch Plains at the time she held the escrowed funds. In March 2010, Alfano allegedly disbursed $40,000 she was safeguarding for real estate purchaser Jaswans Masson without Masson's permission.  She allegedly disbursed Masson's $40,000 at the direction of her client, Kerry Gillon, who operated The Community Group, a for-profit company that bought, rehabilitated and sold buildings.  When Masson's lawyer, Alan J. Gottlieb of East Brunswick, demanded that the $40,000 be returned, Alfano allegedly told him that the money was still in her trust account even though she knew that it had already been disbursed. The complaint and Alfano's answer are online here: Office of Attorney Ethics v. Annette P. Alfano, Esq., Docket No. XIV-2015-0373E.

In her answer, Alfano admits to nearly all of the complaint's factual allegations.  She claimed that she "believed she had authority to disburse the funds" and that even if she did act improperly, "it was only minor misconduct."  Alfano's defense also noted that she had fully cooperated with ethics authorities, that she did not financially benefit from the $40,000 disbursement and that she "no longer maintains personal office business and trust accounts" because she is now employed by the Branchburg-based Law Office of Peter N. Laub, Jr. & Associates, LLC

This is only a summary of the complaint and answer and readers who want more information and context are directed to the filed documents which are on-line at the link above. None of the allegations against Alfano have been proven. The charges will be tried before an ethics panel and the burden is on the ethics authorities to prove their allegations.

Since 1995, attorney disciplinary hearings have been open to the public.  Anyone who is interested in being notified in advance of any hearings on this matter may complete and send a hearing request form to the OAE in care of Barbara Cristofaro via fax to 609-530-5238. 

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Because of EEOC taking 19 years to resolve complaint, woman is still in litigation with state lottery officials for reneging on 1994 job promise.

On November 8, 2013, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) finally concluded its investigation into a Bradley Beach woman's 1995 administrative discrimination complaint alleging that the New Jersey Lottery Commission refused to hire her because she was a blonde.  The EEOC's November 8, 2013 letter is known as a "right to sue" letter and instructs complainants that they have 90 days within which to file a lawsuit.

The woman, Lorraine Scocozza, did file her lawsuit on February 7, 2014--within the 90 day window. According to the federal lawsuit, Scocozza was promised a position collecting lottery receipts from agents who hadn't turned in their sales receipts.  According to the lawsuit, her job was "primarily . . . to convince the agent to agree to cooperate in payment to avoid a visit by the State Police."  In December 1994, lottery officials allegedly reneged on their job promise and Scocozza said that one official told her that "Well, the high ups at the Lottery had a big problem with a blonde woman like you going into Newark."

Discover is now wrapping up and, according to an August 22, 2016 scheduling order, Magistrate Judge Douglas E. Arpert will conduct a status conference on September 28, 2016.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

North Hanover's new police chief topped overtime charts in 2013, 2014 and 2015.

A recent Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request to North Hanover Township (Burlington County) revealed that the newly sworn police chief, Theodore Wells, made more overtime than any other Township officer in 2013, 2014 and 2015. 

Chief Wells has been in the news (here and here) after the Libertarian Party's NJ Civil Settlements blog reported on August 12, 2016 that he had twice been involved in lawsuits that were resolved by confidential settlement agreements.

According to an Excel file disclosed by North Hanover Acting Clerk Mary Picariello today, Wells earned an average of $25,945.57 per year in overtime over the three year period.  Patrolman Richard A. Mellor had the next highest average annual overtime earnings of $14,888.40.  Wells' total compensation for 2015 was $107,691.55.

Acting Clerk Picariello also disclosed a PDF file showing the rank of each police employee in 2013, 2014 and 2015 as well as the dates that those employees changed rank or separated from employment.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Man who says he has nothing to do with heroin sues Monmouth Prosecutor for using his driver license photo on "Faces of Heroin" pamphlet.

A West Long Branch man is suing the Monmouth County Prosecutor, among others, for allegedly putting his driver license photo on a "Faces of Heroin" pamphlet that was distributed at a symposium held at the Manasquan High School.

The date of the symposium where the pamphlet was distributed is not disclosed in the lawsuit but the claimant, Robert M. Ferrante, said that he first learned of the pamphlet on September 18, 2013.  In his lawsuit, Ferrante claimed that he "never used or was associated with heroin use" and that the release of the photo has caused "great humiliation, embarrassment and mental anguish" for him and his wife Doreen Ferrante.

The lawsuit, Ferrante v. County of Monmouth, et al, Federal Case No. 3:16-cv-0349, was brought by Long Branch attorney John Jay Perrone.  Also named as defendants are the Manasquan Board of Education, the Motor Vehicle Commission and the Patch on-line newspaper which allegedly published the pamphlet on the Internet.

The Manasquan school board filed a motion for dismissal and argues that the Ferrantes' complaint does not "assert a specific constitutional violation" and merely states that they're civil rights have been violated.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Three Salem County Corrections Officers sue over imposition of minor discipline.

At least three Salem County Corrections officers have filed suit seeking to overturn disciplinary decisions imposed the the Warden (presumably Raymond C. Skradzinski) that they feel are unfair and in excess of what a Disciplinary Hearing Committee recommended.

In the case bearing Docket No. SLM-L-219-15, Officer Brian Pio claimed that the Warden imposed an improper one day suspension to punish him for sending a June 12, 2015 insubordinate e-mail in response to the Human Resources Department's demand for Pio's marriage certificate and his family's birth certificates after Pio claimed that he had already furnished those documents.  Pio said that the Disciplinary Hearing Committee recommended that Salem County investigate why the originally supplied documents couldn't be located but the Warden imposed the one-day suspension.

In the case bearing Docket No. SLM-L-229-15, Officer Joseph Massey claimed that the Warden imposed an improper one day suspension to punish him for reporting to work late and failing to follow call-in procedures.  Massey said that he "overslept due to taking medication" on August 7, 2015.  Massey said that the Disciplinary Hearing Committee recommended a written reprimand but the Warden imposed the one-day suspension.

In the case bearing Docket No. SLM-L-230-15, Officer Sherreece Holder claimed that the Warden imposed an improper three day suspension to punish her for sleeping and eating on duty on October 3, 2015.  Holder said that she was not sleeping but reading the Bible.  She claimed that after the Disciplinary Hearing Committee found that she was not sleeping, the Warden amended the charge to inattentiveness to duty.  Holder claimed that although the Committee recommended a written reprimand on the eating charge, the Warden imposed a three-day suspension--two days for inattentiveness to duty and one for eating while on duty.

All three matters have been assigned to Assignment Judge Georgia M. Curio who referred the cases to mediation.  All three officers are being represented by Christopher A. Gray of Hamilton.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Montclair ex-cop denied "accidental disability retirement benefits" for alleged PTSD caused by traumatic event.

At its May 2, 2016 meeting, the Police and Firemen's Retirement System (PFRS) affirmed an Administrative Law Judge's denial of accidental disability retirement benefits to a former Montclair Township (Essex County) police officer who claimed that the emotional trauma caused by his February 2009 application of CPR on the body of an already-deceased 9-year-old child rendered him permanently disabled.

In her April 8, 2016 ruling, Administrative Law Judge Evelyn J. Marose noted that former Police Officer Michael Whittle, who served as a Montclair police officer for seven years and previously as a North Caldwell dispatcher for two years, did not apply for disability benefits until February 23, 2012 and did not see any medical professionals about his emotional trauma until April 3, 2012.  Judge Marose also found that Whittle's application was filed only five days before he was found guilty for tampering with evidence and obstruction of justice.  These charges arose out of Whittle arose out of a November 2009 incident in which Whittle allegedly found ten bags of marijuana during an investigation but only reported having found two bags.  On February 29, 2012, he was sentenced to two six-month suspended sentences, a $250 fine and forfeiture of public office.

Judge Marose found one of Whittle's doctors, Dr. Alexander M. Golin, to "not be credible."  She noted that Dr. Golin did not treat Whittle but saw him only "on one occasion to complete a form required by Whittle in support of his disability application."  She also found as "unreliable" the opinions of Dr. Michael R. Bizzarro and Dr. Eugene Stefanelli, neither of whom testified at the hearing.  Judge Marose wrote that both Bizzarro and Stefanelli "essentially formed their opinion that Whittle was disabled based upon statements made by Whittle, who sought their medical support for his application for accidental disability pension benefits."

It is unknown whether Whittle appealed from the PFRS ruling.   Whittle was represented by John D. Feeley of Feeley & LaRocca.




Friday, July 29, 2016

Ethics officials recommend "reprimand" for former Cumberland County Freeholder Deputy Director and impose an "admonition" upon his law partner.

On July 29, 2016, the New Jersey Supreme Court's Disciplinary Review Board recommended that an attorney ethics complaint filed in 2014 against former Cumberland County Freeholder Deputy Director (and now Cumberland County Democratic Party Committee Chairman) Douglas M. Long be resolved with a "reprimand."  The Board also imposed an "admonition" upon Long's law partner Albert K. Marmero. 

An admonition is the mildest form of discipline that can be imposed and a reprimand is the second mildest.  The types of discipline that can be imposed, in order of severity, are admonition, reprimand, censure, license suspension and disbarment.  The Board has the authority to impose an admonition, as it did with Marmero, but higher levels of discipline including a reprimand must be ordered by the Supreme Court.

In the ethics complaint, the OAE had charged that Long's and Marmero's law firm trust account funds were being "regularly invaded and utilized as a 'line of credit' to fund the firm's operating expenses."  In a September 5, 2014 Random Notes on NJ Government article, I called out Long and Marmero for suggesting in filed documents that the firm's bookkeeper, without Long's or Marmero's knowledge, reached out to Long's brother for a $10,000 cash loan to keep the firm's accounts from being overdrawn.

The Office of Attorney Ethics (OAE), with both Long's and Marmero's consent, had filed Motions for Discipline by Consent to resolve both matters. In Long's case the OAE recommended a discipline within a range of a reprimand to a three-month suspension.  In Marmero's case, the OAE recommended a "reprimand or such lesser discipline as the Board may deem warranted."

In making its recommendation, the Board found that Long had "made extraordinary contributions to his community" including heading up an effort to make 400 backpacks and school supplies available to needy Vineland children.  The Board also noted that Long, who previously worked for an engineering company and performed limited in-house counsel work "had no experience or involvement with trust accounting or recordkeeping.  The Board also credited Marmero for his firm's community service and his "unblemished career of thirteen years at the bar."