ELIZABETH, NJ — Three Elizabeth police officers have filed a lawsuit against Elizabeth Mayor J. Christian Bollwage, Police Director James Cosgrove, the Elizabeth Police Department, and several top brass at the EPD, including EPD Chief Patrick Shannon and EPD Deputy Chief Tyrone Torner.
The suit, filed Nov. 3 in Union County Superior Court by police sergeants Robert Brennan, James Kearns and Gerard McDonald, alleges that Brennan, Kearns and McDonald were skipped over for promotions illegally, and that Bollwage threatened to freeze promotions to lieutenant for three years and force all three officers to re-take the lieutenant’s exam when Kelly and Kearns questioned the promotions.
According to the suit, Brennan has been with the EPD since 1987, and has been a sergeant since 2008. Kearns began his employment at the EPD in 1991 and was promoted to sergeant in 1999. McDonald began his employment at the EPD in 1986, being promoted to sergeant in 2005.
In September 2013, each of the plaintiffs took the Civil Service Lieutenant exam in order to achieve higher rank within the department, bringing with it the benefits of being promoted to lieutenant, including increased management responsibilities, increased financial benefits and the opportunity to continue up the chain of command with future promotions.
After achieving the rank of lieutenant, each of the plaintiffs intended on sitting for the Civil Service Captain’s exam at the next available exam date.
In February, 2014, a new list became active for the rank of lieutenant, with Kearns, Brennan and McDonald ranking second, third, and fourth, respectively, on the Active Lieutenant list.
EPD Sgt. Todd Kelly, ranked first on the list, found out that it was Cosgrove’s intention to promote three sergeants to the rank of lieutenant from the expired Lieutenant List instead of using the Active Lieutenant List, in which Kearns, Brennan and McDonald were ranked second, third, and fourth, respectively.
Kelly filed a lawsuit against Bollwage, Cosgrove and the EPD back in August for alleged violations perpetrated against him, as well as retaliatory actions.
When Bollwage was informed that a complaint would be filed if three sergeants from the expired list would be promoted over the plaintiffs, Bollwage allegedly threatened to freeze the Active Lieutenant’s list for three years, as well as threatening to force the plaintiffs to retake the exam.
Bollwage did not respond to LocalSource’s request for comment. Cosgrove also did not respond to request for comment.
In April, 2014, the three sergeants from the expired list were promoted to the rank of lieutenant.
The suit alleges that Cosgrove indicated on the Request for Certification he submitted in January, 2014 to the Civil Service Commission, that there were three vacancies for the rank of lieutenant, which the suit states was false.
According to court papers, at the time that the Request for Certification was made, the department had 20 active permanent lieutenants. The Table of Organization at the time allowed for 21 lieutenants, meaning that there was just one vacancy for the position of lieutenant at the EPD. “As such and contrary to Cosgrove’s Request for Certification, there was only one vacancy for the position of Lieutenant in the Department,” read the complaint. “Thus, Cosgrove’s January 13, 2014 certified statement was false and inaccurate.”
The suit alleges that the defendants’ actions against Kelly and the three plaintiffs, including their failure to promote the sergeants to the rank of lieutenant and denying them benefits, “were done in retaliation for the whistleblowing activities of Sgt. Kelly, plaintiff McDonald and plaintiff Kearns.”
According to the complaint, Kelly and the plaintiffs engaged in “whistleblowing activities” that disclosed and objected to the defendants’ conduct.
In retaliation for these whistleblowing activities, reads the suit, “each of the plaintiffs have suffered adverse employment actions, including but not limited to defendants’ failure to promote any of the plaintiffs to the rank of lieutenant, and other retaliatory and harassing acts at the hands of defendants.”
The suit alleges that Bollwage, Cosgrove, and the other named defendants retaliated against the plaintiffs in order to cover up deliberate fraud and abuse. “Defendants’ adverse employment actions against each of the plaintiffs were without any legitimate and/or lawful purpose,” reads the suit. “The purported rationale for defendants’ adverse employment actions were pretextual and were advanced in order to mask defendants’ retaliatory intent and conspiratorial schemes, which included deliberate fraud, waste and abuse of taxpayer monies. Defendants Bollwage, Cosgrove, Shannon and Torner acted on behalf of or in the interest of defendants city and department, with the city and department’s consent. Defendants’ collective harassing and retaliatory actions against each of the plaintiffs constitute violations of CEPA.”
Shannon and Torner did not respond to LocalSource’s request for comment.
The Conscientious Employment Protection Act of 1986, also known as The Whistleblower Act, prevents employers from retaliating against employees for whistleblowing information.
Adam Elias, of law firm Schiller McMahon and attorney for the plaintiffs, told LocalSource that Bollwage will be held accountable. “The mayor will be held accountable for his decision to put politics before public safety,” Elias said.
The suit is the latest in a long list of controversy surrounding the EPD, specifically Bollwage and Cosgrove. In August, the Police Benevolent Association voted 105 to 88 in favor of “no confidence” in Cosgrove. Just days later, the Superior Officer’s Association — the union representing sergeants, lieutenants, and captains — followed suit, putting forth a “no confidence” vote of 35 to 27.
Bollwage was just reelected for his seventh term as the city’s mayor after running unopposed.