Another Lawsuit Against Woodbridge Police Costs Taxpayers $125K

WOODBRIDGE, NJ—The Township quietly paid $125,000 to a man who had accused police of assaulting him and smashing his front teeth with a flashlight at a TGI Friday's restaurant.

The payment settles the federal lawsuit brought by Jeffrey Gutierez, an Iselin resident who claims the Woodbridge Police Department assaulted and falsely arrested him after they responded to a call at the Gill Lane restaurant.

Police had been told there was a man with a knife at the bar, and even though Gutierez had no knife and allegedly allowed police to search him, that didn't stop them from assaulting him and arresting him, according to the lawsuit.

The case is captioned Gutierrez v. Township of Woodbridge, et al, Federal Case No. 2:13-cv-01937.

Named in the lawsuit were officers Michael Agosta, Matthew Carney, Michael Dellisanti, Brian McGuirk, Lukasz Pepkowski, Daniel Perovic, Adrian Valentino, Brett Wider and Matthew Herbert, as well as Police Director Robert Hubner and Captain Roy Hoppock.

The lawsuit had sought to have the officers relegated to "desk duty" and have them "enjoined… from making arrests, assisting in making arrests, and using any force in making arrests and/or assisting in making arrests." 

Gutierrez was represented by attorney Thomas J. Mallon of Freehold.

Like many settlements between residents and local governments, news of the quiet payoff first became public thanks to open government advocate John Paff, who wrote about the settlement on his NJ Civil Settlements website.

The settlement agreement was approved on October 25, and Paff's report was published on January 11.

It's at least the second settlement the Township has agreed to pay in just six months for allegations of misbehavior on the part of its police force.

As we reported, the Township recently paid $70,000 to settle a case brought by three Elizabeth residents who claimed they were falsely arrested on charges that were later dismissed, and that an officer jumped on the hood of their vehicle and threatened to shoot his gun at them.

The women also claimed they were thrown to the ground, and thoroughly frisked "on all parts of their body including their breast, between their legs, and on their buttock."

Like that settlement, the agreement reached between Gutierez and Woodbridge Township includes a confidentiality clause that prevents both sides from disclosing the terms of the settlement.

"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," wrote Paff.

Paff regularly pours through New Jersey court records, and federal court records, to identify settlements reached by local governments, which often include confidentiality clauses in the hopes that the matter won't garner attention from the media and the public.

"All that is known for sure is that Woodbridge or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Gutierrez $125,000 than take the matter to trial," concluded Paff.

"Perhaps the defendants' decision was done to save further legal expense and the costs of trying what were in fact exaggerated or meritless claims," Paff wrote. "Or, perhaps the claims were true and the defendants wanted to avoid being embarrassed at trial."

"This is the problem when cases resolve before trial–it is impossible to know the truth of what really happened."

Because Woodbridge is a member of the Central Jersey Joint Insurance Fund, the cost of the settlement will be shared among taxpayers of that Township, as well as seven other municipalities: Piscataway, Franklin, Hillsborough, Sayreville, Edison, Belmar, and South Amboy.

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Charlie is the founder and editor of New Brunswick Today, and the winner of the Awbrey Award for Community-Oriented Local Journalism. He is a proud Rutgers University journalism graduate and a community organizer, and was an independent candidate for Mayor of New Brunswick in 2018.