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 Spotswood, Docket No. MID-L-4026-16 and Al-Najjar's lawsuit is being represented 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.
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.