By Marion Filler
A Superior Court judge on Friday upheld a jury that sided with a whistleblowing Morristown cop who claimed he got demoted for questioning his chief’s freelance jobs.
“The jury made a clear decision that has to stand,” Judge Louis Sceusi told lawyers for the town, who had asked him to overturn the unanimous May verdict and toss or reduce $1.7 million in damages awarded to Officer Keith Hudson.
Sceusi, who presided over the trial in Morristown, said he expects to rule on the monetary matter this month.
The judge noted the judgment is against the town of Morristown, and not against Police Chief Pete Demnitz, who Hudson alleged removed him from the detective bureau in 2015 as retaliation for reporting side jobs that Hudson suspected the chief had worked on town time.
“Is it appropriate for me to accept punitive damages if they are not necessarily punishing the entity they are supposed to be punishing?” Sceusi asked.
“Who is being punished? Are they punishing the entity of Morristown? The police? Chief Demnitz? Or are they simply attacking the taxpayer? That’s an equitable issue to raise.”
Demnitz, who was cleared of any improprieties by the Morris County Prosecutor’s Office, was removed as a defendant in the civil trial by Hudson’s legal team.
During the trial, the chief said he reassigned Hudson because of concerns about the detective’s performance in the investigation of an armed man arrested at Headquarters Plaza.
Jeffrey Catrambone, Hudson’s lawyer, argued on Friday that the damage amount was justified in light of a new tax law that will consider any lump sum as taxable income.
Morristown special counsel Brent Davis countered that this has always been the case. Because no tax returns have yet been filed for 2018, allowable deductions are unknown and cannot be an issue at this time, he asserted.
Davis also questioned legal fees submitted by the winning side: Billable hours amounting to $636,647, and a 60 percent “enhancement” fee of $227,514. Davis said the going rate is between 20 – and 35 percent. Both sides submitted written arguments.
Another issue was the depth of Morristown’s municipal pockets. Sceusi said the town’s budget surplus is between $2- and $3 million — not $28 million, as represented by Catrambone.
The error quickly was acknowledged by Catrambone, though he reminded the court that the ability to pay never was raised by Morristown during the trial.
“Counsel was given opportunity to present evidence of ability to pay. Your Honor gave them the opportunity but the Town did not do that,” Hudson’s lawyer said.
Asked later whether the town plans an appeal, town Attorney Vij Pawar said: “We will wait until the Judge makes a final decision and then evaluate our options.”