Friday, April 28, 2017

Former Pennsauken High School principal says she will sue school district for racial discrimination.

On February 2, 2017,  a former principal of Pennsauken (Camden County) High School withdrew a racial discrimination complaint she filed in 2015 with the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights (NJDCR) because she "decided to pursue this matter in the Superior Court of New Jersey."

In her NJDCR complaint, Tameka Matthews said that she was hired in 2008 as an elementary school principal and promoted to principal of Pennsauken High in August 2013.  Effective July 1, 2015, she claimed that she was "demoted . . . to a lower paying, elementary school principal position."  She said that the demotion decision was based on her being Black and female.

The school board's June 25, 2015 minutes confirm that Matthews was transferred from Pennsauken High School to Fine and Roosevelt Elementary effective July 1, 2015.  The same minutes also show her high school principal salary as $114,027.  The September 24, 2015 minutes show her elementary principal salary as $105,474.

Matthews claimed that James Chapman, the then interim superintendent, told her that he did not have to give her a reason for the demotion.  But, Matthews' complaint alleges that Chapman explained to the teacher's union president that he was an "old, white male."  The complaint says that Chapman wanted to replace Matthews with Vice Principal Rich Bonkowski who the complaint characterizes as "a less qualified, Caucasian individual."

The Board's website, as of the date of this writing, does not list Matthews as a school principal.  It does, however, show Bonkowski as the principal of the district's intermediate school.

A check of the Superior Court docket does not show that Matthews has yet filed her lawsuit.

None of Matthews' allegations have been proven.  If she does file her lawsuit, Pennsauken school officials will have an opportunity to require her to prove her allegations to a jury.

Monday, April 24, 2017

School district settles food service manager's discrimination claim by providing neutral job reference.

I've only recently learned that complaints filed with the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights (NJDCR) are public records and I'm trying to get a sense of how this process works and what type of results it yields.  For those interested in this process, I've obtained the complaint, settlement agreement and other records from the case of Shawn Rembelinsky v. the Washington Township (Gloucester County) Public Schools and have summarized them below.

Rembelinsky filed her undated NJDCR complaint in 2015.  She alleged that she was a food service manager hired by the school district in 2011 and that she advised Business Administrator Peggy Meehan of an unspecified disability in January 2015.  Meehan reportedly responded by placing Rembelinsky on a "performance improvement plan" and Rembelinsky countered by presenting Meehan with an April 30, 2015 doctor's note seeking a disability leave from May 5, 2015 through June 5, 2015. 

Rembelinsky said that she was notified on May 4, 2015 that she was being terminated effective June 30, 2015.  She claimed that she was discriminated against because the school district "could have provided her with the reasonable accommodation of holding her position during her thirty day leave, without incurring any undue hardship on its operations." 

The matter settled in February 2016.  The school district agreed "that it will only acknowledge [Rembelinsky'] date of hire, job classification, last day of work, and salary to any prospective employer. The [school district] also agrees to release only neutral references regarding [Rembelinsky's] work history with [the school district], and no mention will be made about [Rembelinsky's] eligibility for rehire to any prospective employer."  The school district gave no other concessions, such as rehiring Rembelinsky or providing her with monetary relief.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Cranford lawyer accused of not returning file promptly in toxic mold case and for not cooperating with ethics authorities.

A Cranford (Union County) attorney is facing ethics charges for not properly withdrawing from representation after his client discharged him and for not cooperating with ethics authorities.  The attorney has filed an answer denying most of the charges.

In District XII Ethics Committee v. Andrew J. Calcagno, Docket No. XII-2016-0043E, Scotch Plains lawyer Thomas G. Russomano, who is prosecuting the matter, said that Calcagno had agreed to file a lawsuit against his clients' landlord due to the presence of toxic mold in their apartment.  According to the ethics complaint, the clients, after not hearing anything further from Calcagno, fired him and hired a new lawyer.  The new lawyer was reportedly not able to get Calcagno to turn over the clients' file and the clients filed an ethics grievance against Calcagno on October 28, 2014.  According to Russomano, Calcagno did not respond to letters sent on October 24, 2016 and November 14, 2016 letters that asked him to contact an ethics investigator within ten days.  Calcagno ultimately turned the file over to the new lawyer on November 22, 2016, according to the complaint.

In his answer, which is also at the link above, Calcagno denied the complaint's allegation that the clients had terminated him.  He also denied receiving the new attorney's September 10, 2016 and September 28, 2016 letters and September 12 2016 e-mail.  Calcagno admitted receiving the new attorney's October 8, 2016 e-mail but said that the e-mail "constitutes an unethical and unlawful threat and is tantamount to blackmail and/or extortion."

Calcagno also admitted to not timely responding the the ethics investigator's two letters but said that he "had extenuating circumstances, including but not limited to, [his] father suffering a stroke and [his] subsequent responsibilities as his father's sole caregiver."  Calcagno also said that he had communicated with one of his clients "on a frequent basis and repeatedly informed her that [he] would not be able to proceed with her case without documented evidence that she had been exposed to toxic mold."

The ethics charges are only allegations--nothing has been proven. Calcagno has a right to a hearing and the burden of proof is on Russomano. 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 XII Ethics Committee in care of Secretary Michael Brandman via fax to 908-272-0525.

Linden lawyer defends himself against charge that he failed to file expungement petition.

A Linden (Union County) attorney facing charges for not diligently filing an expungement petition claimed that his actions were justified because his client got arrested twice after the petition's fee was negotiated and then did not pay an additional fee for extra legal work necessitated by the two arrests.

In District XII Ethics Committee v. Michael G. Brucki, Docket No. XII-2016-0027E, Union lawyer Robert J. Logan, who is prosecuting the matter, said that Brucki accepted a $600 fee in April of 2012 but failed to file an expungement petition that would have would have removed two arrests from his client's record.  According to the ethics complaint, the client first learned of Brucki's failure to file the petition after she was denied an insurance producer's license in 2016.

In his February 23, 2017 answer to the complaint, Brucki claimed that he first met the client, Kathiuska Gomez, after she was charged in 2008 with 2nd degree robbery which exposed her to both a prison term and deportation.  He claimed that after a great deal of work, he was able to get Gomez into the pretrial intervention (PTI) program provided that she had no prior convictions.  After learning from Gomez that she did have a prior shoplifting offense in West Paterson, Brucki said that he had that case reopened and the shoplifting charge dismissed, according to Brucki's filed answer.

Brucki said that he and Gomez first starting discussing expunging her record in early 2010 but Gomez did not have any money to pay his fee at that time.  Then, Brucki claimed, Gomez came to his office in September 2011 after having been arrested for shoplifting in Old Bridge.  Brucki said that he was able to get that charge dismissed.  Finally, in March and April 2012, Gomez paid the fee to have the expungement move forward but, according to Brucki, he could not file the paperwork until after he received dispositions from the Old Bridge matters.  About a month after that, Brucki claimed, Gomez came to his office in a hysterical state and told him that she had been arrested for theft in Paramus.  Again, Brucki claimed, he was able to have the Paramus case dismissed.

When Gomez again brought up the expungement petition, Brucki claimed that he told her that her subsequent arrests would require a lot more work and would require a $1,500 fee instead of the $600 she had already paid.  He said that he met with Gomez in April 2014 to start work on the new expungement petition but that Gomez did not have the money to pay the additional legal fee.  Brucki claimed that he didn't file the petition because Gomez did not pay the additional fee and that Gomez never contacted him about applying for an insurance producer's license.

The ethics charges are only allegations--nothing has been proven. Similarly, Brucki's claims regarding Gomez have not been tested or adjudicated. 

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 XII Ethics Committee in care of Secretary Michael Brandman via fax to 908-272-0525.

Ethics complaint dismissed against lawyer who serves as Plainfield judge.

In an undated report that was likely issued within the past three months, a three-member panel of the Essex County-based District VB Ethics Committee recommended dismissal of charges against a West Orange lawyer accused of urging Newark officials to refrain from doing business with a company that the lawyer's client was suing.  According to the on-line New Jersey Lawyer Diary and Manual, the lawyer who faced these charges also serves as Plainfield Municipal Court judge.

According to the Hearing Panel Report, Patricia Weston Rivera, in her capacity of an attorney rather than a judge, represented Ruby Deschamps Hicks in a lawsuit against ethics grievant Jamilah Muhammad and her company, KIJ & A. Co.  According to the report, the object of the lawsuit was to absolve Ms. Hicks "of responsibility for charges on a credit card that" Muhammad had allegedly made at Home Depot.  During the pendency of the lawsuit, Rivera admitted that she wrote a letter to the Director of Newark's Department of Economic and Housing Development that detailed Hicks' claim against Muhammad and which urged the City to "not buy from [Muhammad] nor sell to [Muhammad] or her company as long as the litigation between" the parties continued.  Rivera also admitted to having made several phone calls to Newark seeking the same result.

Muhammad's grievance claimed that Rivera's efforts sought to "coerce an outcome not yet reached by a court" and violated several Rules of Professional Conduct, according to the report.  The ethics panel, staffed by attorneys Charles S. Lorber of Roseland, Karina D. Fuentes of the Federal Public Defender's Office and public member Bishop Jethro C. James, Jr., found that the prosecution did not bear its "burden of proving unethical conduct by clear and convincing evidence."  According to the report, "there was no evidence that any legal right of [Muhammad] was violated or that the purpose for submitting the documents to the City of Newark was other than to advance the rights of [Hicks]."

Muhammad has a right to appeal the dismissal to the Disciplinary Review Board.  It is unknown whether or not she has exercised that right.

A lawyer named Patricia Weston Rivera, who appears to be the same lawyer involved in the above-described event, was admonished by the New Jersey Supreme Court in 2008 for "violating RPC 1.15(a) (negligent misappropriation), RPC 1.5(a) (unreasonable fee), and RPC 1.15(d) and Rule 1:21-6 (recordkeeping deficiencies)."  According to a March 13, 2008 New Jersey Law Journal article, the Disciplinary Review Board recommended that Rivera be reprimanded for keeping "sloppy books" and for charging excessive fees in 18 personal injury cases.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

West Amwell fire company member, business owner sues mayor and committeeman for defamation; challenges land use denial.

On January 6, 2017, a member of West Amwell's volunteer fire company filed a defamation lawsuit against the Township's mayor and one of its Committee members for calling him a liar during a public Township Committee meeting and claiming that he "violat[ed] multiple fire codes on his property with disregard to the public [which] makes a mockery of fire safety."  On February 17, 2017, the fire company member, a contract purchaser of a Mill Road facility "used for weddings and other social assemblage purposes," filed a separate lawsuit claiming that West Amwell officials unreasonably prevented him from continuing to hold weddings and banquets at the facility after he purchased it.

The plaintiff in both lawsuits is Zachary Lubchansky.  In his defamation lawsuit against West Amwell Mayor Zachary T. Rich and Committeeman Stephen Bergenfield, Lubchansky claimed that two officials defamed him during the Township Committee's September 7, 2016 public meeting.

The minutes of that meeting reflect that Bergenfield made a motion to revoke the Township Committee's August 19, 2015 approval of Lubchansky's membership in the West Amwell Fire Company "based on not living here, lying on his application, and violating multiple fire codes on his property with disregard to the public."  Rich seconded the motion which passed unanimously. According to the meeting minutes, the Fire Company had thirty days to revoke Lubchansky’s membership and if it did not, the Fire Company's "funding is in jeopardy." 

Lubchansky said that the accusations against him are false, that no open fire code violations were pending at the time of the meeting and that the accusations have caused him both financial loss and a loss of his reputation and standing in the community.

In their answer to the complaint, Bergenfield and Rich denied most of the allegations and asserted, among other defenses, that Lubchansky "selectively quoted certain words out of context" and is a public figure who is required to show that any defamatory statements were uttered with actual malice.

In the land use matter, Lubchansky claimed that his wedding and banquet facility has historically been used for weddings and other public functions and complied with all Township zoning codes.  He claimed that prior to acquiring the property, he met with Township officials and was assured that the property could continue to be used for weddings and banquets.  But, Lubchansky claimed that "after [he] had conducted several weddings on the Property, [he was] told that the Property could not be used for weddings and other social assemblage purposes."  The lawsuit claims that Lubchansky's May 21, 2016 application for a use variance was denied on January 24, 2017 after three hearings conducted by the Township's Zoning Board of Adjustment.  Lubchansky claimed that the Board's decision "was arbitrary, capricious and unreasonable."

Lubchansky is represented in the land use matter by Arnold C. Lakind of Lawrenceville and in the defamation matter by Michael T. Hollister of Philadelphia.  Representing Rich and Bergenfield in the defamation action is Richard P. Cushing of Clinton.