Seven Cops File Federal Lawsuit Against Twp. Officials
Seven veteran police officers have filed a civil lawsuit in federal court alleging their civil rights have been violated by Lawrence Township, Township Manager Richard Krawczun, Police Chief Daniel Posluszny and Deputy Police Chief Joseph Prettyman.
Update, May 16: When asked, at the conclusion of the May 15 township council meeting, to comment on the lawsuit, Township Manager Richard Krawczun said, “We will vigorously defend ourselves and the township.”
Original Story, May 9:
Alleging that their First Amendment-protected civil rights have been violated and that they have been punished for taking part in union activities, seven veteran Lawrence Township police officers have filed a civil lawsuit in federal court against the township manager, the chief and deputy chief of the police department, and the municipality itself.
Filed in United States District Court in Trenton on April 18 by Moorestown-based attorney Katherine Hartman, the lawsuit seeks “compensatory damages, including damages for emotional distress, loss of reputation, personal injury, back pay, front pay, consequential damages, punitive damages, pre- and post-judgment interest, reasonable attorneys' fees and the cost of suit and any other damages the court deems equitable and just.”
Describing the seven officers as active members and officers of the labor organizations representing township police officers, the lawsuit alleges the “defendants have consistently and systematically retaliated against the plaintiffs for the exercise of their First Amendment rights, specifically, their union involvement and still more specifically, participation in their union activities. Defendants have acted individually and in concert in their official capacity to quell the exercise of plaintiffs' First Amendment rights by retaliating against plaintiffs for the exercise of said rights.”
Named as plaintiffs are:
- Sgt. Joseph Caloiaro, a member of the police department since 1993;
- Officer Marc A. Caponi, a member of the police department since 2004;
- Officer Andrew F. Lee, a member of the police department since 2006;
- Officer Andres Mejia, a member of the police department since 2006;
- Officer Hector Nieves, a member of the police department since 2001;
- Officer Steven Simon, a member of the police department since 2005; and
- Officer Scott W. Stein, a member of the police department since 1999.
Named as defendants are:
- The Township of Lawrence;
- Township Manager Richard Krawczun;
- Police Chief Daniel Posluszny; and
- Deputy Police Chief Joseph Prettyman.
The lawsuit alleges the “plaintiffs were subject to discipline, passed over for promotion, denied vacation, and generally ostracized and shunned as a result of their participation in protected First Amendment Activity” and that “the actions of the defendants were outrageous and demonstrate a pattern and practice by the defendants of interference in plaintiff's constitutional rights. The willful indifference of the defendants creates liability against the defendants for punitive damages. The defendants' acts of retaliation were performed with malicious and reckless indifference to plaintiffs' protected civil rights.”
Among the allegations contained in the lawsuit are that since Prettyman has been deputy chief, “no one who has been an officer in the union has been selected for a promotion” and that the township has spent over $160,000 in sergeant’s overtime rather than spend the $20,000 it would have cost to have promoted one of the plaintiffs to that rank.
Hartman, the attorney for the seven officers, did not return a phone call seeking comment. Krawczun, the township manager, is on vacation this week and was not available for comment.
The defendants were served with the lawsuit on April 20. By law they had 21 days to file a formal response.
On May 2, Peter F. Berk, a Newark-based attorney who is representing the defendants in the lawsuit, filed an “Application for Extension of Time to Answer, Move or Otherwise Replay” in which he asked for the response deadline to be extended.
On May 3, according to federal court documents, that request was granted and the defendants now have until May 25 to file their formal response to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit (which, together with other related documents that were obtained from the federal court, can be read in the Patch media box above) details specific actions the defendants allegedly took against each of the seven officers.
Caloiaro, who serves as president of the Superior Officers Association, alleges, in part, that following a dispute he had with Prettyman over union business Prettyman refused to speak to him and later was responsible for changing Caloiaro’s shift in a way that ignored Caloiaro’s level of seniority.
“When Caloiaro spoke to the Chief and Deputy Chief about his assignment, they responded by raising the fact Caloiaro had filed two grievances in the past,” the lawsuit alleges. “In the summer of 2011, Caloiaro requested to move one block of his vacation time due to an opening created by a departmental transfer. His request was denied in spite of the fact that the denial was in direct conflict with the Chief’s Special Order.”
“The First Amendment of the United States Constitution guarantees the freedom of speech and association. The adverse job actions taken against Caloiaro, including but not limited to being given an undesirable assignment, being denied the ability to switch vacation, as well as the general hostility and ostracism were a direct result of the exercise of his First Amendment rights,” according to the lawsuit.
Marc A. Caponi
Caponi, an active union member who previously held the position of sergeant-at-arms, alleges he was retaliated against by the township after he was awarded almost $9,000 through a worker’s compensation claim he filed for a skin condition he contracted in 2009 while taking part in a police department-ordered activity.
“Two years later, the township sent a letter accusing Caponi of making a fraudulent claim and making scurrilous and completely false allegations about sexual behavior at a bachelor party. When confronted with the truth, the township failed to pursue their baseless allegation of fraud,” the lawsuit states.
It continues: “The adverse job actions taken against Caponi, including but not limited to being threatened with charges of fraud, being subject to scandalous and false accusations about his personal life and being subject to general hostility and ostracism were a direct result of the exercise of his First Amendment rights.”
Andrew F. Lee
Lee alleges that he was retaliated against multiple times because of his activity as president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 209, which is the current bargaining unit for rank-and-file officers in Lawrence Township.
The lawsuit alleges, in part:
In December of 2010, an FOP meeting took place wherein it was suggested that in lieu of other concessions suggested by the township, one cost saving measure would be to eliminate the position of Deputy Chief. Said suggestion was forwarded to the township administrator by Lee in his capacity as FOP President and in accordance with the vote of the union members.
The Deputy Chief responded by attempting to organize a campaign to force Lee's resignation as union president and stating that there will be drastic measures taken vis-a-vis the FOP. Deputy Chief Prettyman further stated, "If you think the Joe Prettyman who was captain of operations was bad, you haven't seen anything yet. I am going to be a royal ball-buster. You are now going to see who the really bad Joe Prettyman is."
After this threat was made, Prettyman began to take actions which plaintiffs believe were retaliatory and which were designed to interfere with the exercise of their First Amendment rights.
Lee objected to conduct which he believed to be harassing by contacting the township administrator who represented that he would be taking action and notifying the township council. Lee also met with the Chief of Police in mid-January of 2011. Lee filed an Unfair Labor Practice with the FOP Labor Council, objecting to the conduct of the Chief, Deputy Chief and Captain, specifically their failure to allow members to attend meetings and docking them their training time earned.
Approximately one month later, in March of 2011, Officer Lee was informed that he was the target of an internal affairs investigation about an incident, which occurred on January 26, 2011. The investigation involved assistance rendered by Officer Lee to a stranded motorist during a snowstorm….
In or about March, 2011, a survey was issued by a consulting service hired by the township. The draft results of that survey showed that the officers interviewed had generally negative views about the leadership and direction of the police department. After the survey draft was released, Lee was denied the ability to attend an FOP convention, in spite of language in the collective bargaining agreement to the contrary. On or about March 16, 2011, Lee filed a grievance about the interference with his attendance at the FOP meeting.
In September 2011 for the first time, the Deputy Chief was responsible for creating new shifts and he manipulated that process and ignored prior practice, seniority and the collective bargaining agreement and used the shift assignments to punish those who were active in the union and or had filed grievances against the department.
In October, another Internal Affairs investigation was initiated against Officer Lee because he prepared a memorandum, with the approval of his supervisor and in accordance with the collective bargaining agreement. When Officer Lee spoke to his Captain about the investigation, he responded, "you shouldn't have f*****d with the man."
Mejia is a longtime member of the Policemen’s Benevolent Association 119, which until 2009 was the bargaining unit for rank-and-file officers in the township. Since 2009 Mejia has served as treasurer for the PBA local, which still represents some officers, albeit a smaller number than those represented by the FOP lodge.
In April 2011, according to the lawsuit, Mejia filed a grievance against the township “relating to the rescission of a previously approved switch of vacation time between Mejia and Nieves. Four months after permission was granted, Nieves and Mejia received a memo rescinding the prior given permission. Mejia and Nieves filed a grievance regarding the rescission. Said grievance is still outstanding.”
In October 2011, Mejia filed another grievance against the township “relating to their denial of his request to obtain training classes.” The following month, the lawsuit alleges, Posluszny denied that grievance.
“Days after said grievance was denied Officer Mejia was served with a Preliminary Notice of Disciplinary Action alleging three incidents which occurred eight months prior. Said incidents complained that while Officer Mejia took harassment reports in each of the three incidents relating to juveniles, he expressed to the victim/witnesses that an alternative non-police way to handle the matter could be explored,” according to the lawsuit.
In January of this year, Mejia was informed that he was again the subject of Internal Affairs investigation. The lawsuit relates:
On Jan. 18, 2012, Officer Mejia was questioned about a call out two months prior. On the date in question, Officer Mejia was forced to go to his doctor, and upon his return to work, he brought in a note from that doctor in spite of the fact the collective bargaining agreement does not require a doctor's note until missing four consecutive days or using their entire allotment of 120 hours. Neither one of those situations was at issue with regard to Officer Mejia.
On or about March 8, 2012, Officer Mejia was conducting an active investigation of a motor vehicle accident wherein one of the drivers had a suspended license, an unregistered and uninsured vehicle. While he waited for a warrant check on the driver, his lieutenant contacted him. When Officer Mejia told he was act of conducting an investigation of a motor vehicle accident the Lieutenant traveled to his location, and in the middle of an open/active investigation served him with a Preliminary Notice of Disciplinary Action.
Mejia recently received another Preliminary Notice of Disciplinary Action seeking a 30-day suspension for instructing a dispatcher from a nearby town not to drive after he determined that she was under the influence of alcohol.
Officer Mejia has requested hearings in all of the outstanding disciplinary matters, but has not yet had the opportunity to exonerate himself. None of the grievances which Officer Mejia has filed have been adjudicated.
The adverse job actions taken against Mejia, including but not limited to frivolous disciplinary charges and general hostility and ostracism were a direct result of the exercise of his First Amendment rights. As a direct result of the exercise of the exercise of Mejia's First Amendment rights, he was retaliated against by defendants acting under color of state law.
Nieves was a member of PBA Local 119’s executive board from November 2007 through November 2009 during which time, according to the lawsuit, he assisted with four grievances against the police department.
In April 2010, Nieves was involved in a “disagreement” with another officer. The lawsuit alleges:
The Chief of Police filed a criminal charge of simple assault against Nieves in spite of the fact that he, the Chief, did not witness any events which justified the complaint and furthermore, in spite of the fact that [the other officer] had no desire to pursue a criminal complaint. Nieves was suspended pending disposition of the charge.
On or about October 27, 2010, after a trial, the charge against Nieves was dismissed. On the same day, was served with a Preliminary Notice of Disciplinary Action seeking a six-month suspension.
Because the department had failed to investigate any of the Nieves' complaints about [the other officer] during the incident from April, the Mercer County Prosecutor's Office became involved in an investigation of the lieutenant who handled the matter. In or about Jan. 11, 2011, Nieves was interviewed by the Prosecutor's Office. Nieves was asked a question which he believed he was not obligated to answer and the prosecutor did not press the issue.
In March 2011, Nieves filed a complaint against his lieutenant for failure to take action on his behalf on three separate incidents. In April 2011, Nieves filed a grievance regarding the rescission of his prior authorized vacation time.
Seven months after his interview but only weeks after filing grievances, the Lawrence Township Police Department instituted an Internal Affairs investigation against Nieves claiming that in the January interview with the Prosecutor's Office, he was insubordinate. In or about November, 2011, Nieves was served with a Preliminary Notices of Disciplinary Action seeking a six-day suspension for insubordination.
To date, in spite of his request for a hearing on both the Preliminary Notice of Disciplinary Action seeking a six-month suspension which was filed in October, 2010, and the Notice of Disciplinary Action seeking a six-day suspension for insubordination.
Nieves has not received a hearing on either set of charges. Similarly, the numerous outstanding grievances filed by Nieves, remained unresolved at this time.
Simon, the current treasurer of FOP Lodge 209, alleges that even though he ranked No. 1 on a sergeant’s promotional exam in 2009 he was passed over in favor of a lower candidate.
“Simon spoke to the Chief who instructed him to write a memo and the Chief would coach him on how to improve himself as a candidate. Simon did as he was instructed but received no response for four months at which time he was told that the Chief had reconsidered and would not speak with Simon regarding his promotional prospects,” according to the lawsuit. “Shortly thereafter Simon received a proposed 10-day suspension. He requested a hearing in December of 2011 but has still not had an opportunity to defend himself.”
“Simon remains No. 1 on the sergeant list but rather than promote him the department has chosen to spend in excess of $160,000 in sergeant's overtime rather than the approximate $20,000 it would have cost to promote Simon,” the lawsuit continues. “The adverse job actions taken against Simon, including but not limited to being passed over for promotion, being subject to frivolous discipline and being subject to general hostility and ostracism were a direct result of the exercise of his First Amendment rights.”
Scott W. Stein
An active union member who served as vice president of PBA Local 119 in 2006, Stein alleges that he too was passed over for promotion to sergeant, even though he scored No. 2 in the 2009 exam.
“While Stein had enjoyed a higher ranking based on the sergeant's test, and a far superior disciplinary history, Stein has been vice president of the PBA, a member of the mentor program, and [the officer who received the promotion] is not an active member of the union,” the lawsuit alleges.
“Since Prettyman has been appointed to that position of Deputy Chief, no one who has been an officer in the union has been selected for a promotion… The adverse job actions taken against Stein, including but not limited to being passed over for promotion, and general hostility and ostracism were a direct result of the exercise of his First Amendment rights,” the lawsuit states.