On June 5, 2017, the Borough of Tuckerton (Ocean County) quietly paid $8,225.36 to settle a lawsuit brought by a suspended Borough police officer who was indicted on January 13, 2015 for allegedly causing his K-9 canine “Gunner” attack a 58-year-old female motorist on January 29, 2014 and then falsifying an arrest record to cover his actions.  Under the terms of the settlement, Tuckerton also agreed to forgive $16,774.64 in health premiums that the Borough said the officer owed and also gave full ownership of Gunner to the officer.

Tuckerton officer Justin M. Cherry filed two lawsuits against the Borough–one each in federal and state court.  In both complaints, Cherry claimed that he was deprived of some training opportunities and that when he complained he was met with “demeaning and harassing” conduct by Chief Michael Caputo.  Cherry said Caputo’s harassment was retaliatory and that Caputo “has been determined to terminate [Cherry’s] employment by any means.”  Caputo’s alleged harassment consisted of refusing to compensate Cherry for his “at home” care of Gunner and accusing Cherry of hacking Caputo’s e-mails. 

Cherry’s most serious allegation, however, was that Caputo conspired with Sergeant Christopher Anderson “to fabricate allegations” about the January 29, 2014 incident underlying Cherry’s indictment “in order to achieve a termination of [Cherry’s] employment.”  Cherry claimed that Borough officials intentionally sent notice of a meeting at which his employment would be discussed to the wrong address in order to deprive him of his right to attend that meeting. Cherry was suspended with pay on February 4, 2014 and without pay on April 9, 2014–the same day he was arrested by the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office.

In an October 17, 2016 Opinion, United States District Judge Brian R. Martinotti dismissed the bulk of Cherry’s federal lawsuit and a July 8, 2016 Order by Ocean County Superior Court Judge James Den Uyl stayed the state court action.

The cases are both captioned Cherry, v. Borough of Tuckerton, et al, and bear Superior Court Docket No. OCN-L-293-16 and Federal Case No. 3:16-cv-00505 and Cherry’ attorney was Tracy L. Riley of Mount Holly.  Cherry’s wife, Michele, was a plaintiff in both lawsuits.

The settlement agreement contains a confidentiality clause, which prevents the parties to the suit from disclosing the settlement amount and 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 the Cherry’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 Tuckerton or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Cherry $8,225.36 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]