Article from Transparency NJ.
Between 2015 and 2018, several members of the East Orange Police Department (Essex County) filed sexual harassment, retaliation or discrimination lawsuits against the Department and its senior officials. Five of those suits have settled for a total of $1,647,500 while two others are still open and are scheduled for trial later this year.
Cases are summarized below:
STEPHEN A. PLUMER, FELIX L. CABRERA AND ANTHONY J. ROGERS V. CITY OF EAST ORANGE
On November 29, 2022, the City entered into a $175,000 settlement with Stephen A. Plumer, Felix L. Cabrera and Anthony J. Rogers to settle their claims of retaliation they allegedly suffered after they attempted to enforce wage and hour provisions in their union contract.
According to their lawsuit, the three plaintiffs, all of whom were detectives in the Narcotics Unit, filed grievances when their shift assignments were changed without them having been given a one week notice as required by their union contract. Four days after their grievances were filed, Sergeant Anthony Peters sent the entire Narcotics Unit a text which, according to the lawsuit, threatened anyone who continued to complain about the shift changes to “reassignment to the undesirable Patrol Unit.” A few days later, the entire Narcotics Unit was disbanded and all of its members, including the three plaintiffs, were demoted to the Street Crimes Unit and Shooting Response Team, according to the lawsuit. Plumer and Cabrera also alleged that bogus, retaliatory disciplinary complaints were lodged against them.
Of the $175,000 settlement, Plumer, Cabrera and Rogers each received $37,978.60 and their attorney received $61,064.20.
The individuals named as defendants in the lawsuit were Anthony Cook, Sheilah Coley, Phyllis Bindi, and Anthony Peters.
Plumer’s, Cabrera’s and Rogers’ lawsuit is captioned Steven Plumer, et al, et al v. City of East Orange, et al, Docket No. ESX-L-8150-17. The trio was represented by Armen McOmber of Red Bank. The lawsuit and settlement agreement are online here.
RAYMOND GARCIA V. CITY OF EAST ORANGE
On October 3, 2022, the City entered into a $150,000 settlement with a police lieutenant who claimed that his supervisor discriminated against him due to his ethnicity and retaliated against him for assisting a female coworker lodge a complaint about the supervisor’s alleged assault upon her.
In his lawsuit, Raymond Garcia, a lieutenant, claimed that he assisted Kia Brooks and John Bocchino (see next lawsuit) in reporting Anthony Cook’s alleged assault upon Brooks. Garcia claimed that after he helped Brooks and Bocchino, Cook began being hostile and retaliatory against him. Cook publicly referred to Garcia as a “piss poor” manager and told Chief Phyllis Bindi that “if it was up to me, I’d reassign Garcia from the Detective Bureau immediately,” according to the lawsuit. Garcia said that he was then transferred twice and denied training, all in retaliation for his support of Brooks and Bocchino.
Garcia claimed that after he announced at a meeting that he planned to hire a lawyer to deal with his supervisors’ retaliation, Cook stormed out of the room while screaming “if I stay here, I will go the f*ck off!”
Garcia, who is Dominican American, also claimed that Cook, who is African American, of discriminating against Spanish-speaking employees. Cook “regularly and openly mocked” Garcia’s accent and “admonished [him] for hiring too may Dominicans,” according to the lawsuit. Garcia’s lawsuit also accused Cook of filing “a malicious, retaliatory and unfounded insubordination complaint against” him.
Of the $150,000 settlement, Garcia received $97,509.70 for “alleged emotional distress” and his attorney received $52,490.30.
The individuals named as defendants in the lawsuit were Anthony Cook and Phyllis Bindi.
Garcia’s lawsuit is captioned Raymond Garcia v. City of East Orange, et al, Docket No. ESX-L-5098-18 and he was represented by Armen McOmber of Red Bank. The lawsuit and settlement agreement are online here.
KIA BROOKS, ZACHARY MUSE AND JOHN BOCCINO V. CITY OF EAST ORANGE
On August 25, 2022, Kia C. Brooks, Zachary Muse, and John Boccino entered into a confidential settlement agreement under which they and their lawyer would receive a total of $540,000. Under the agreement, a) Brooks received $55,511.88 as a wage claim and $166,535.64 as a non-wage claim for a total of $222,047.52; b) Muse and Boccino each received $31,023.76 as a wage claim and $31,023.76 as a non-wage claim for a total of $124,095.04 for the two of them and c) their lawyer received $193,857.43.
In her lawsuit, Brooks, who was hired by the police department in 2007, claimed that Cook grabbed her from behind in 2016 as they exited a police department elevator after he had flirted with her while in the elevator. Cook allegedly massaged Brooks’ shoulders and tried to kiss her neck. (The lawsuit, which was filed in November 2016, lists Brooks as the sole plaintiff. Given that they took part in the settlement, Zachary S. Muse and John Boccino must have joined onto the suit subsequent to its filing. Unfortunately, a copy of the amended lawsuit in which Muse and Boccino joined as plaintiffs is not available at the time of publication. However, Muse’s and Boccino’s claims, however, are outlined in a June 16, 2022 NJ Advance Media article.)
Brooks claimed in her suit that Cook had a history of sexual harassment and gender discrimination. As evidence of this claim, she referenced a 2011 lawsuit filed by a female police matron who claimed that Anthony Cooke (presumably Tony Cook) visited her home on January 26, 2007 to “discuss a business matter involving the sale of cakes and cookies” but when she stepped out of the room for a moment and then returned “she found that Captain Cooke had removed his penis from his trousers and was masturbating.” The City and the woman reached a $200,000 settlement on June 16, 2014.
Her lawsuit alleged that Cook had been promoted from Captain to Commander of Internal Affairs despite the $200,000 settlement payment having been paid out a year before. Brooks said that she was “terrified to step forward” about Cook’s alleged assault because Cook had “a history of using his firearm to intimidate and threaten a . . . female employee following an incident of sexual harassment.”
Despite her concerns, Brooks said that she did report the alleged assault to the Essex County Prosecutor and the East Orange Human Resources Director. She said that neither took her complaint seriously although she alleged “on information and belief” that Cook had been placed on a short period of administrative leave.
According to the settlement agreement, the individuals named as defendants in the lawsuit were Anthony Cook, Phyllis Bindi and Berkley Jest. The agreement notes that Bindi was dismissed from the suit prior to settlement.
The Brooks, Muse, and Boccino lawsuit is captioned Kia Brooks, et al v. City of East Orange, et al, Docket No. ESX-L-7748-16. The trio was represented by Armen McOmber of Red Bank. The lawsuit and settlement agreement are on-line here.
MICHAEL WILLIAMS V. CITY OF EAST ORANGE
On June 21, 2019, the City paid $32,500 to an officer who claimed that senior officials retaliated against him after he refused to target specific employees for discipline.
In his lawsuit, Michael Williams, who was assigned to the position of Medical Officer after having been shot while pursuing a suspect, claimed that Chief Phyllis Bindi and Inspector Anthony Cook retaliated against him after he refused to “target specific employees for increased scrutiny of medical leave.” Among the employees that Williams claimed he was told to target were Kia Brooks, Zachary Muse and Calvin Anderson, all of whom had filed suit against the police department (see above).
Williams claimed that he refused to target these employees because he recognized it as being a form of unlawful retaliation. After Cook became angry at Williams’ refusal to comply with his command, Williams told both Bindi and Cook that he planned to consult with the City’s attorney, according to the lawsuit. This, according to Williams, incensed Bindi even further causing her to exclaim “you’re not supposed to speak to Corporate Counsel without my permission!”
The day after allegedly being berated by Bindi, Williams emailed both Bindi and Cook seeking clarity on what they wanted him to do. The fact that Williams was documenting the situation in writing upset Bindi who called Williams on his personal cell and screamed “So you want to be cute! You want to be cute! You’re blasting off emails now? Well I can be cute too!” according to the lawsuit.
William’s lawsuit claimed that the next day, Cook ordered him to investigate, among others, Williams’ own wife for “Pattern absenteeism.” Williams’ wife had been employed as a City police dispatcher for more than twenty-five years.
Williams claimed that the stress caused by Cook and Bindi caused “an onset of tinnitus with a severe headache” causing him to request to be placed on “line of duty injury” status. Two days later, while Williams was on medical leave, he received an email demoting him from Medical Officer to patrol status, according to the suit. Williams claimed that the demotion “would undoubtedly exacerbate the physical and emotional injuries [he] continues to suffer as a result of being shot in the line of duty.”
Williams contacted a lawyer who wrote a “litigation hold letter” to the City’s Corporate Counsel. Williams claimed that four days after the letter was received, he was notified that he was being disciplined for “Conduct Unbecoming a Public Employee.” Williams also alleged that Bindi ordered two officers to enter his neurologist’s office to obtain his confidential medical records.
The individuals named as defendants in Williams’ lawsuit were Anthony Cook, Phyllis Bindi and Sheilah Coley.
Of the $32,500 settlement, Williams received $21,312.41 and his attorney received $11,187.49.
Williams’ lawsuit is captioned Michael Williams v. City of East Orange, et al, Docket No. ESX-L-1947-18. Grimes was represented by Armen McOmber of Red Bank. The lawsuit and settlement agreement are on-line here.
CALVIN M. ANDERSON V. CITY OF EAST ORANGE
In his 2017 lawsuit, which is still pending at the time of this writing, Calvin M. Anderson, a lieutenant who has been employed with the police department since 1999, claimed that he was retaliated against for refusing to implement a quota system for arrests and citations. Anderson claimed that Captain Anthony Cook’s quota system would violate state law and “would incentivize officers to make as many arrests as possible to avoid discipline, which could potentially lead to unlawful arrests.”
Anderson said that Cook engaged in a “severe and pervasive” campaign of retaliation against him for refusing to implement the quota system. The campaign included threatening unfounded disciplinary action and indicating that he would never be promoted to captain, according to his lawsuit. When he reported the retaliation to Human Resources, he was reportedly told that he was too “uptight” and needed to “relax.”
He claimed that Chief Phyllis Bindi, in an April 5, 2018 phone call, told him that “we are skipping you [for a captains promotion] . . . it’s not in the best interest of the department” Anderson was ultimately promoted to captain after he complained to a City Council member, according to the lawsuit. The day after he complained, Anderson claimed, he received a phone call from Safety Director Sheilah Coley who said that she “had no idea” that Bindi had not shared to her decision to skip Anderson for the captain’s position.
In a March 15, 2022 opinion, the Appellate Division reversed part of a summary judgment order that dismissed Anderson’s complaint that Cook’s conduct caused Anderson to suffer an “adverse employment action.” Trial on that matter is currently scheduled for July 24, 2023.
The individuals named as defendants in Anderson’s lawsuit were Anthony Cook, Sheilah Coley and Phyllis Bindi
ANTHONY D. RICKS V. CITY OF EAST ORANGE
In his 2017 lawsuit, which is still pending at the time of this writing, Anthony D. Ricks, a sergeant who has been employed with the police department since 2003, claimed that he was retaliated against for complaining about the alleged assault upon Kia Brooks (see above). He claimed that Anthony Cook assigned an officer to listen to coworkers’ conversation and report back to Cook on anyone who supported Brooks. Apparently, Cook had learned that Ricks had told his coworkers that Brooks was treated unfairly and that Ricks “has a seventeen-year-old daughter and [that he] wouldn’t want anyone to touch her like Defendant Cook touched Sgt. Brooks,” according to the complaint.
Ricks’ lawsuit alleges that Cook lowered his evaluation scores even though he did not work closely enough with Ricks to have knowledge of his performance. He also claimed that he was falsely accused of disciplinary infractions by Berkley Jest, who he described as being a close friend of Cook.
Ricks claimed that he reported Jest and Cook for retaliation and requested a transfer. The next day, a coworker sent Ricks a photo of Jest’s unmarked police vehicle parked at Tanky’s Tavern in Hillside and ,wrote “he’s been drinking at a bar in Hillside since this afternoon.” according to the lawsuit.
Upon receipt of this information, Ricks asked Detective Cabrera to visit the bar to see whether the allegations were true. Ricks also dropped a friend off to observe whether Jest was drinking at the bar, according to the lawsuit. Cabrera and the friend reportedly sent Ricks several photos and videos of Jest drinking at the bar with a female, then walking the female out of the bar at 8:30 p.m. and then returning to the bar to continue drinking until 12:30 a.m.
Ricks said that he tried to call Lieutenant Kasim Gilyard to report Jest’s conduct and, not being able to reach him, called dispatch. Despite the calls, no officer was sent. Rather, Hewitt Atkins of the Professional Standards Unit telephoned Jest and told him to leave the bar, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit continued: “At approximately 12:30 a.m., after nearly eight (8) hours of drinking alcohol, Jest exited the bar, looked around to see if anyone was observing him, and then sped out of the parking lot in his police vehicle at a speed too fast for Det. Cabrera to follow him. Upon information and belief, Defendant Jest operated his police vehicle while intoxicated.”
After reporting Jest, Ricks said that the retaliation increased. The retaliation included a demotion to the patrol division and refusal to return his service weapon to him after he returned from medical leave, according to the complaint. He also accused Jest of “let[ting] a known criminal in possession of an illegal firearm who threatened [Ricks’] life to roam free in retaliation for Plaintiff’s complaints.” Ricks’ lawsuit claimed that since his service weapon has not been returned, he has not returned to work because of fear for his and his family’s safety.
The individuals named as defendants in Rick’s lawsuit were Anthony Cook, Berkley Jest and Phyllis Bindi.
Rick’s case is scheduled for trial on April 10, 2023.
Some of the settlement agreements contain confidentiality clauses, which prevent the parties from disclosing the settlement’s terms to others. Fortunately, however, these confidentiality clauses do not trump the public’s right to obtain copies of settlement agreements that arise out of lawsuits in which a government agency or official is a defendant.
None of the allegations in any of these lawsuits have been proven or disproven in court. Rather, they are just that–allegations. Nothing claimed about any of the officials named as defendants has been proven. Settlement agreements typically state that payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by any of the police officials named in the lawsuit. All that is known for sure is that East Orange, or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that they would rather pay the plaintiffs than take the matter to trial. Perhaps the defendants’ decision to settle was done to save further legal expense and the costs of trying what were in fact exaggerated or meritless claims. Or, perhaps the claims were true and the defendants wanted to avoid being embarrassed at trial. This is the problem when cases settle