It was a year ago that a Hudson County Superior Court jury awarded a gay couple a $4.8 million judgment after ruling that the Town of Secaucus violated the men’s civil rights because of their sexual orientation.
In their civil lawsuit against the town, the two men, who used to live in Secaucus, alleged they were harassed by a few members of the volunteer Fire Department who worked in the firehouse next door. They claimed the men harassed them for two years and that the town failed to protect them. This harassment, their suit alleged, eventually culminated in an attack on their home, during which their lives were threatened.
The $4 million-plus settlement was covered by insurers, not taxpayers.
Although the fate of the three firefighters received the most attention, that chapter of the case was closed within weeks of the verdict as the three men voluntarily resigned from the department in August.
The town also agreed to settle the case, with three insurance companies providing the funds.
However, regarding efforts to prevent future incidents, the town is still hammering out revised anti-discrimination training and policies.
In October, Hudson County Superior Court Judge Barbara Curran rejected a motion by the town’s attorney to toss out the jury verdict based on legal technicality. Other motions by the town were similarly denied, leaving Secaucus two options.
The town could either appeal the verdict to the Superior Court Appellate Division, or settle the case with the plaintiffs. General Star, one of three insurers that covers Secaucus, pushed for a settlement.
“The decision not to appeal wasn’t our call,” said Town Administrator David Drumeler. “Keep in mind, if you appeal and win the appeal, the only thing you’ve won is a new trial. The outcome may be the same and you’ve spent more money in legal fees.”
In all, the town’s insurers paid more than $4 million to the plaintiffs and their attorney, according to Drumeler and Neil Mullin, the lawyer who represented the couple, Peter DeVries and Timothy Carter.
“A few thousand dollars got shaved off the amount awarded by the jury,” said Mullin. “It was such a small amount that I told them it wasn’t worth fighting for if it meant holding up the settlement.”
The jury awarded DeVries $1 million for emotional distress and pain and suffering, and an additional $446,000 for loss of income. Carter was awarded $1.4 million for emotional distress and pain and suffering. Mullin received an estimated $2 million in legal fees.
None of the settlement amount was paid by taxpayers; all of it was paid by for by insurers.
The town’s JIF, Suburban Essex Municipal Joint Insurance Fund, paid the first $250,000 of the settlement amount. The Municipal Excess Liability Fund shelled out another $1 million. The balance of the settlement was paid by General Star, an excess insurance carrier.
The town’s own legal fees also were covered by insurance.
Taxpayers, however, may ultimately feel the impact of the settlement in the form of higher insurance premiums.
This year, for example, Secaucus had to pay Suburban Essex $37,217 more in insurance premiums than last year. And Drumeler notes that the full impact of the settlement on premium rates may not be felt until next year since other insurance policies were renewed before the settlement was reached.
Still no training
After the three firefighters resigned, town leadership turned its attention to beefing up the sensitivity and anti-discrimination training given to municipal volunteers.
In a strongly-worded letter that was sent to residents and published in local newspapers last summer, Mayor Dennis Elwell wrote, “I am making immediate personnel and policy changes [including] sensitivity and bias prevention training for all municipal employees, beginning with the Fire Department.”
Such training had, in fact, been mandated by the town’s insurers. Last year, the administration said the training would be on par with training given to paid employees.
One year after the verdict, however, that training has yet to happen.
“We expect to have a revised training video finalized at the next JIF meeting [on June 16],” Drumeler said last week. “A new [anti-bias] policy will also be finalized then.”
The 15-minute video, he said, is a discussion among police chiefs, fire chiefs, and a labor attorney of what “can get folks into trouble. A lot of it is based upon our case from a year ago.”
Drumeler said it took a year for the video and revised policy to be developed and approved by the JIF. When finalized, town volunteers will be required to watch the video with their supervisors. He and the town’s labor attorney will offer additional training as needed. This training, Drumeler said, will be “less onerous than what regular employees get because there’s less opportunity to get into trouble.”
The video will be shown to the 80 members of the fire department, 60 people who volunteer at the recreation center, and 40 OEM volunteers.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at email@example.com.