Hillside comes out on top in lawsuit by former police captain

HILLSIDE, NJ — A lawsuit claiming that the township of Hillside was guilty of retaliation and a hostile work environment was dismissed by state Superior Court on Tuesday, Dec. 1.

Former Hillside Police Capt. Nicola Lomonte, the plaintiff in this case, represented by Jeffrey Catrambone of the law firm of Sciarra & Catrambone, had made these claims against the township of Hillside, specifically former Hillside Mayor Angela Garretson, who was represented by Frank Capece of the law firm of Garrubbo & Capece. Capece regularly contributes columns to Union County LocalSource. The trial took place on Sept. 21, 22, 23, 24 and 28 before Judge Alan G. Lesnewich.

Lomonte claimed that Garretson had engaged in inappropriate contact. Further, he alleged that certain arguments had resulted in a hostile work environment, following his taking the civil service test to become chief of police. He argued that Lt. Vincent Ricciardi was promoted to the position of chief by the mayor, despite Lomonte scoring four points higher on the test and holding the superior rank of captain.

Lesnewich, however, would have none of this.

“The court respectfully disagrees that the record does not even come remotely close to establishing that Mayor Garretson acted with discriminatory intent towards Lomonte at any point during her tenure as councilperson or mayor,” said the judge in court documents. “Her decisions were based on concededly subjective and predictive judgments, which relate to the mayor’s assessment of personality and compatibility with managerial objectives. No doubt these are important factors, which are difficult to accurately measure in a competitive examination alone. The court is firmly convinced that the reasons provided for the appointment of Lt. Ricciardi over Capt. Lomonte, although somewhat subject, are logical and reasonable.”

According to court documents, Ricciardi had begun working as the department’s information technology manager and was skilled with computers, something that Garretson testified at length as being an asset. Utilizing what’s known in the New Jersey Civil Service Commission as the Rule of Three, which allows an appointing authority to choose from the top three eligible candidates from an open competitive or promotional list for a position, the mayor selected Ricciardi to be the next chief of police instead of Lomonte.

“She relied upon the Rule of Three in bypassing Capt. Lomonte and promoting Lt. Ricciardi, citing ‘leadership’ and Ricciardi being a ‘better fit,’ and that Capt. Lomonte was a ‘follower and not a leader,’” according to the court documents.

While the mayor admitted that she and Lomonte had had confrontations, which Lomonte claimed were discrimination, it was successfully argued that these disagreements were simply in the course of business.

“No employee has a constitutional right to a boss that they like,” said Capece on Tuesday, Dec. 2. “In this case, Garretson was very clear that she wanted certain changes.”

During cross-examination, Garretson said she wanted to make sure there were certain goals met, and she felt Ricciardi was more suited to doing that than Lomonte.

“I made the argument that I thought Lomonte’s primary problem was he had a sense of entitlement to the job, and he did not,” Capece said.

The court ultimately rejected that what Lomonte claimed at trial were unlawful retaliation and a hostile work environment were in violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination. Given that both candidates had been promoted multiple times, showing that both must have had the background, training and experience to be promoted, the court found no indication of any degree of prejudice on Garretson’s decision.

Capece said it was clear that a major part of the judge’s decision was informed by Garretson’s testimony. “In essence, they give the appointing authority the reasons to do what they do.”

According to Capece, the second charge, that of a hostile work environment, is very significant, because there seems to be a “cottage industry development” of employees bringing lawsuits and claiming a hostile work environment. Through this, Capece said municipalities are put in a squeeze, and, if they fight the case, it’s expensive and, many times, the insurance carriers would soon settle.

“I see this case as the pendulum swinging back to management rights,” Capece said. “There’s been a pattern of these developing, and I see this case as demonstrating the pendulum swinging back to the other direction. In the case of Garretson, she came with ideas and goals and she knew what she wanted. That clashed with the sense of entitlement that Lomonte thought he had for the position.”

The court also stated that, despite Lomonte’s argument to the contrary, it found the record to be bereft of any evidence linking Lomonte’s race to Garretson’s actions.
“One event over a four-year period of interaction simply does not cut the legal mustard,” the judge said while addressing the case. “The court will not paint these claimed events with the brush of discrimination.”

Councilwoman at large Nancy Mondella said she was pleased with the results of this case.

“When I first came into municipal government, what struck me as a regular citizen was the amount of litigation that employees would use so quickly and easily,” said Mondella on Friday, Dec. 4. “Obviously, the legal system is here for us, if need be, but I felt that it was a bit abusive, and I think, in Hillside, we had a lot of cases that should never have really been settled, in my opinion. I was happy that we finally, as council, took a stand and went to court.

“There’s not a lot of money out there to be had. It’s our job to safeguard that money to be used for the residents of Hillside,” Mondella continued. “To have people just file frivolous lawsuits and have them be settled because they know, historically, people have settled and settled for huge amounts, just isn’t acceptable. I was happy.”

Hillside attorney Ellen Harris, with whom Capece consulted and who was present during the trial, also said she was satisfied.

“We had to see every testimony of all the parties, and the witnesses were carefully considered by the court and it resulted in an extremely well-reasoned decision,” Harris said on Friday, Dec. 4

Catrambone said both he and his client were displeased with the court’s decision.

“We are disappointed with the court’s ruling and it’s factual and credibility findings, as they did not take into account the evidence presented at trial of the township’s retaliatory animus and its creation of a hostile work environment against a police captain who ably and conscientiously served the citizens of Hillside for 25 years,” Catrambone wrote in a statement on Tuesday, Dec. 8.