Morristown seeks to overturn cop whistleblower verdict and ‘excessive’ award; cop’s lawyers seek $637K in fees

Morristown Officer Keith Hudson, foreground, testified Wednesday against Police Chief Pete Demnitz in a whistleblower trial, May 16, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Morristown Officer Keith Hudson, foreground, testified against Police Chief Pete Demnitz in a whistleblower trial, May 16, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
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Morristown says it shouldn’t pay anything to a whistleblowing cop. The cop’s lawyers want nearly $637,000 more.

Attorneys for the town are asking Superior Court Judge Louis Sceusi to overturn or re-try a civil case heard in May, when a jury unanimously ruled that Police Officer Keith Hudson was removed from the detective bureau as retaliation for questioning freelance jobs worked by Police Chief Pete Demnitz.

If the judge won’t go for that, the town wants him to scrap or reduce $1.7 million in damages awarded to Hudson, also unanimously, by the same jury.

Morristown Officer Keith Hudson smiles after winning his whistleblower case in Superior Court, May 29, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Morristown Officer Keith Hudson smiles after winning his whistleblower case in Superior Court, May 29, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

The total of $1.5 million in punitive damages is “so excessive as irresistibly to give rise to the inference of mistake, passion, prejudice or partiality,” and is “so disproportionate as to shock the conscience” and cause “a manifest denial of justice,” town special counsel Brent Davis argues in legal papers filed with the court.

Punitive damages usually are limited to five times the compensatory damages, according to Davis. This award is seven times greater, he notes.

Hudson’s victorious legal team, meanwhile, has filed for $636,647 in fees from Morristown.

That includes more than $379,000 for more than 771 hours worked by lead attorney Jeffrey Catrambone and three members of his Lyndhurst firm, plus a 60 percent “enhancement” of $227,514, and $29,943 in costs.

Catrambone could not be reached for comment on Friday.

‘THE JURY CLEARLY SPECULATED’

The whistleblowing verdict should be overturned, Davis says, because no testimony or evidence showed Demnitz knew it was Hudson who had reported him in July 2014 to the Morris County Prosecutor’s Office (which found no wrongdoing by the chief) when he reassigned the detective a year later.

Demnitz asserted he transferred Hudson for allegedly balking at investigating an armed man arrested by the Secret Service at Headquarters Plaza in July 2015.

“The jury clearly speculated” about retaliation, Davis says in the court papers.

Nor did facts in the seven-day trial meet a legal threshold for imposing punitive damages, the lawyer maintains. The chief’s reassignment of Hudson was not “egregious or reprehensible”; Hudson did not lose his job or seniority.

Police Chief Pete Demnitz is sworn in for civil trial, as Superior Court Judge Louis Sceusi watches, May 21, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Police Chief Pete Demnitz is sworn in for civil trial, as Superior Court Judge Louis Sceusi watches, May 21, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Hudson, a 13-year veteran of the police force, also was awarded $199,000 for past and future lost earnings, and $10,000 for emotional distress. Davis contends the jury based its numbers partially on an erroneous calculation by an economist who testified for the officer.

Hudson’s lawyers chose against naming Demnitz as a defendant. Doing so, Davis suggested, would have triggered jury consideration of his ability to pay–and maybe, of the extent of the town’s liability.

“Morristown should not be penalized by Hudson’s litigation strategy,” Davis writes.

 Judge Sceusi may consider Morristown’s requests on July 20, 2018.

Demnitz declined to comment. Mayor Tim Dougherty said he was “still disturbed by the outcome of this case and the impact it will have on taxpayers.”

“We’re evaluating all options,” added town Attorney Vij Pawar. We’ll pursue whatever is in the best interests of taxpayers.”

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