MORRISTOWN – A judge has reduced the amount of punitive damages awarded by a civil jury to Morristown Constable “whistleblower” Keith Hudson from $ 1.5 million to just over $ 1 million.
Superior Court Judge Louis Sceusi, in a written decision, upheld the Morris County jury verdict in May that Hudson suffered retaliation by being kicked out of the detective’s office on August 1, 2015 by the police chief Peter Demnitz.
But Sceusi, which was required by state and case law to analyze the fairness of punitive damages because a public entity – Morristown – bears the cost, reduced that part to $ 1,047,155.
The new sum is five times the $ 209,431 the jury awarded Hudson in compensatory damages rather than the jury’s punitive damages award which was seven times the compensatory award. The judge ruled that punitive damages were appropriate, but adjusted the amount to align with case law that five times a compensatory award is “the normative measure of proportion limits.”
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The jury awarded Hudson $ 10,000 for emotional distress and $ 199,431 in economic damages suffered by his transfer from the detective unit to the patrol division. This price will remain intact. The separate punitive award – intended to punish and deter those accused of retaliation or egregious conduct – was $ 1.5 million, an amount that Morristown attorney Brent Davis argued before the judge was excessive and “Shocked the conscience”.
Punitive damages are not covered by insurance, so taxpayers have to bear the cost. The city can always appeal the jury and judge’s decisions or try to reach an out-of-court settlement with Hudson.
“This tribunal cannot say that the jury’s decision to impose a punitive sentence, given the facts of the case, shocks the conscience or results in a clear denial of justice,” Sceusi wrote.
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“There is not even the slightest inference that the jury was mistaken, passionate, or prejudiced. Based on the evidence presented, the jury could have reasonably interpreted the chief’s actions as malicious and the jury could have reasonably conclude that the leader was “upper management,” Sceusi wrote.
Demnitz, the 14-year-old boss, said at trial he was unaware that Hudson reported him to the Morris County District Attorney’s office in 2014 for “double deduction” by registering as a boss and then in doing lucrative third-party jobs such as security. for Morristown Medical Center or traffic control when JCP & L repaired power lines.
In his ruling, the judge upheld the jury’s verdict that the city – through Demnitz – had violated the state’s law on the protection of conscientious employees, also known as CEPA or the law on conscientious workers. whistleblowers. CEPA protects employees from retaliation – in Hudson’s case transferring him out of the detective’s office – after they report perceived wrongdoing based on a good faith belief that misconduct is occurring. happen.
Demnitz testified that he transferred Hudson after the detective allegedly questioned the Department’s involvement in an investigation of a man found walking around headquarters plaza in a bulletproof vest and carrying handguns in a backpack. Hudson said he has been concerned about the chain of custody of evidence since the Secret Service, which has offices at Headquarters Plaza, initially detained the suspect.
Sceusi concluded that Hudson was a credible witness and the jury rejected the city’s defense that Demnitz was justified in transferring Hudson. Sceusi wrote that the jury heard numerous circumstantial testimony from witnesses at trial that Demnitz knew Hudson had denounced him for double deduction.
“The jury believed the plaintiff,” Sceusi wrote. “They did not accept the defendant’s explanations. All of the numerous circumstantial incidents between the parties could reasonably be used by the jury to determine whether the count had in mind retaliation in relation to the plaintiff’s dismissal and whether the actions of the leader were malicious and warranted punitive damages. “
Evidence that Demnitz knew Hudson was a whistleblower emerged at the trial, the judge wrote, in the form of a fellow detective asking Hudson if he was attempting suicide. Hudson also said Demnitz made cryptic comments to him about the changes in his behavior and warned him not to speak directly to his secretary, after Hudson filed his complaint with the prosecutor’s office.
As stated, the defendant claims that no evidence was presented to show that the Chief was aware of the plaintiff’s information. This is simply not true. Although it may be true that it is there was no direct evidence that the Chief was so in the know, nearly impossible to obtain in CEPA cases, and circumstantial evidence is sufficient to support a CEPA request, ”Sceusi wrote.
Two officers – Lt. Stuart Greer and Captain Michael Buckley – had testified that they disagreed with Demnitz’s decision to transfer Hudson. Demnitz said he only learned that Hudson was a whistleblower after filing his lawsuit in October 2015.
The judge also refused to give Hudson’s lawyers the $ 606,704 they were claiming in legal fees. Jeffrey Catrambone, Matthew Curran and Charles Sciarra demanded $ 379,190 in fees, plus a 60% mark-up in fees depending on the difficulty of the case and the risk they took in taking the case they would not win.
While praising their successful efforts in the CEPA case, the judge ruled that a 25 percent improvement was appropriate instead of 60 percent. He reduced the hourly rates they asked for and eliminated the hours they said they had spent on the case because they were too vague or duplicative, and awarded $ 383,203 in legal fees.
Editor Peggy Wright: 973-267-1142; pwright@GannettNJ.com.