On April 24, 2016, the Township of Belleville (Essex County) agreed to pay $25,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by a retired fireman who claimed that the Township retaliated against him for refusing to drop a wage claim stemming from a 1993 agreement.

In his lawsuit, Peter Coppola said that a 1993 arbitration agreement obligated the Township to pay him for 283 hours that he had worked without pay.  He said that after the Township reneged on its agreement in 2009, the Township Manager told him that “the Township does not have the money to make the payout.”

In 2013, after his 2010 retirement, Coppola said that he was re-employed by the Township as a part-time mechanic.  He claimed that he was called in the fire chief’s office and told that “the powers that be” said that if wanted to keep his part-time job, he would have to drop his claim for the 283 hours of pay.  Coppola, who said that he was “shocked and disappointed,” asked the fire chief if the Township would agree to a long term contract for his present job.  Coppola claimed that the was fired a few days later.

The case is captioned Coppola v. Township of Belleville, et al, Superior Court Docket No. ESX-L-2488-14 and Coppola’s attorney was Howard A. Vex of Parsippany. Case documents are on-line here.  According to the agreement, Coppola received $18,500 and Vex received $6,500.

The settlement agreement contains a confidentiality clause, which prevents the parties to the suit from publicly disclosing the settlement terms.  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.

None of lawsuit’s allegations have been proven or disproven in court.  Settlement agreements typically state that payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by any of the defendants.  All that is known for sure is that Belleville or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Coppola $25,000 than take the matter to trial. Perhaps the defendants’ decision was done to save further legal expense and the costs of trying what were in fact exaggerated or meritless claims. 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.

Chairman of the New Jersey Libertarian Party's Open Government Advocacy Project. Please send all comments to [email protected]