On January 31, 2017, the Borough of Tuckerton (Ocean County) agreed to pay $50,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by a former volunteer firefighter who claimed  that senior fire company officials retaliated against him after he refused a demand to stop speaking with a female firefighter who had been previously terminated from the fire company.

In his lawsuit,Matthew Puzio said that he chaired the fire company’s Parade Committee in 2013 which endeavored to hold a holiday parade in December of that year.  Puzio said that Fire Chief Lewis Eggert, Sr., Assistant Chief Lewis Eggert, Jr. and President Charles Uhl were supportive of the idea of a parade and repeatedly told him to “run with it” until Uhl saw Puzio speaking with Janette Dominski, a former fire company member, who Puzio claimed had been “wrongfully terminated” from the fire company.  According to the lawsuit, “Uhl told [Puzio} in unambiguous terms that he was not to associate with Ms. Dominski because she was going to sue the fire company.”

Puzio claimed that soon after he refused Uhl’s demand to stop associating with Dominski, Eggert, Sr., Eggert, Jr. and Uhl began to harass and retaliate against him.  He claimed that the trio began to question every decision he made regarding the parade and that Uhl removed him from the Parade Committee two weeks before the parade’s scheduled date.  When Puzio decided to run against Uhl for the position of fire company president, the trio of senior officers allegedly “falsely and publicly accused [Puzio] of intending to charge children to see Santa Claus at a parade related event and falsely and publicly accused [Puzio] of unilaterally deciding to include beer sales in the event all in an attempt to paint [Puzio] in a bad light to the Tuckerton Community.”

Puzio also claimed that Chief Eggert entered onto Puzio’s fenced property, stuck his head in Puzio’s kitchen window and “began hollering” at him.  The senior Eggert also allegedly enlisted Puzio’s neighbor to participate in the harassment by telling him that Puzio “badmouthed” him.  The neighbor allegedly retaliated by “gutting a deer in his front yard very close to [Puzio’s] property line and allowing it to bleed out frightening [Puzio’s] young son with the grotesque display.”

When Puzio complained to Uhl and the Borough Council, Uhl allegedly responded by suspending him for “tak[ing] his complaints outside the Fire Company.”  Uhl allegedly told Puzio that the suspension would continue until Puzio agreed to handle the matter within the company and without being represented by a lawyer.  Puzio said that he was suspended at a fire company meeting and that no notice had been given that his suspension was going to be discussed.  Several months later, Puzio received an e-mail advising him that “he had been terminated from the fire company by a vote of the members of the company, again without notice or any opportunity to be heard,” according to the lawsuit.

The case is captioned Puzio v. Borough of Tuckerton, et al, Ocean County Superior Court Docket No. OCN-L-582-15 and Puzio’ attorney was Sebastian B. Ionno of Pitman.  Case documents are on-line here.

According to the release, Puzio received $29,000 of the settlement amount with the remainder going to his attorney.  According to the Borough Council’s February 6, 2017 resolution, the $50,000 was paid by the Ocean County Municipal Joint Insurance Fund.

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 Tuckerton or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Puzio $50,000 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]