Big bill to rid borough of sex suit

By Ron Leir 

Observer Correspondent 


East Newark has agreed to pay a former civilian police dispatcher $101,000 to settle a sexual harassment suit filed against a borough police superior who also served as the borough’s volunteer fire chief.

Additionally, through its public liability insurance coverage, the borough has also consented to pay the ex-employee’s lawyers more than $90,000 in fees and costs in connection with the processing of claims against her former employers.

Borough Attorney Neil Marotta said the cop continues to be employed by the borough. But he has agreed to a voluntary demotion, from sergeant to police officer, according to court papers. He hasn’t been criminally charged.

An amended complaint filed in August 2013 in Hudson County Superior Court by the Whippany law firm of Foreman & Gray alleged that its client was a victim of a “sexually hostile and abuse environment” during her employment as a dispatcher.

The complaint said that sometime after she was hired as a part-time police dispatcher in May 2008, Police Sgt. Robert Tomasko, her supervisor, “forced … [the woman] to perform oral sex” on 10 different occasions and threatened to fire her if she told anyone what happened.

On May 1, 2010, the complaint said, Tomasko terminated the woman, for an alleged “failure to cover a shift she was not scheduled to work” to “silence her” on the belief that the Police Department “was becoming aware of his conduct towards [her].” After her firing, she told the police chief what she alleges had happened to her, the complaint said.

The complaint added that the woman, who served as a borough volunteer firefighter for eight years, “faced discriminatory actions” and “gender discrimination” after disclosing that she was pregnant and “was forced to resign” as a volunteer in April 2012.

The complaint alleged that the woman was subjected to a “sexually hostile work environment,” that the Police Department “failed to remediate” the situation, that she feared losing her job for speaking out against her supervisor, that she was wrongfully terminated from her dispatcher job and firefighter position and, therefore, demanded compensatory and punitive damages and legal costs.

On June 6, 2014, Hudson County Superior Court Judge Francis Schultz dismissed all but one of the claims against the borough and Tomasko, leaving only the sexual hostile work environment claim open for trial.

But, during settlement negotiations, after having initially indicated they would accept nothing less than $1 million for their client and then later modifying that to not less than $500,000, the plaintiff ’s lawyers accepted an “offer of judgment” of $101,000 in July.

However, in October 2014, the plaintiff ’s lawyers, Foreman & Gray, petitioned the court for fees of $786,247, based on 1,990.5 billable hours at $395 an hour, plus about $393,123 in “enhanced” legal fees and about $36,500 in costs for a total of about $1.2 million.

In evaluating the merits of the law firm’s enhanced fee application, Superior Court Judge Kimberly Espinales- Maloney found that although the lawyers’ billing rate was acceptable, she found certain billings “unreasonable.” These included:

• 12.5 hours to draft a set of  interrogatories.

• 19.8 hours to review  and abstract the transcript of Tomasko’s 2- hour and 47-minute-long statement of Sept. 28, 2012.

•41.8 hours to prepare for  Tomasko’s deposition.

• 9.1 hours to attend To masko’s deposition, lasting two and a half hours.

• 29.1 hours to prepare for  depositions of former Police Chief Kenneth Sheehan and current Chief Anthony Moreiro.

• 5.2 hours for Sheehan’s  deposition, lasting two and a half hours.

• 140 hours to oppose the  borough’s motion to dismiss the case.

“These examples are not exhaustive, merely illustrative of the efforts of plaintiff ’s counsel to recover fees,” the court determined.

“Additionally,” the court noted, “[plaintiff ’s lawyers, Paul Foreman and David Gray] each individually billed hours for all activities they worked on together.… It is unreasonable for two attorneys to charge individually for routine activities, such as drafting interrogatories.”

In its Oct. 10 decision, the court concluded that 200 hours was a “reasonable amount of hours” spent on the case which, based on the billable rate, works out to $79,000 in attorney’s fees. In addition, the court allowed $14,480 in “reasonable litigation costs,” for a combined total of $93,480.

The Hackensack law firm Sweeney & Sheehan represented the borough in the case and Philadelphia attorney Robyn McGrath, of Harwood Lloyd, appeared for Tomasko.

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