On December 21, 2021, the Paramus Borough Council (Bergen County) passed a resolution that settled three separate lawsuits that arose out of the hiring of Mayor Richard LaBarbiera’s son Vincent as a Borough police officer. The settlement agreement called for the Borough’s insurance carrier to pay Vincent LaBarbiera $250,000 and for all three lawsuits and an appeal from one of them to be dismissed.
The three lawsuits were:
In this lawsuit, Vincent LaBarbiera, a Democrat, who is the son of Paramus Mayor Richard LaBarbiera, also a Democrat, claimed that three Republican members of the Council, Joseph Vartolone, Christopher DiPiazza and Jeanne Weber, repeatedly voted to block him and nine other candidates from being hired as Borough police officers. According to the lawsuit, each of the Council votes to hire the ten officers resulted in a tie, 3 Democrats to 3 Republicans, with Vincent’s father, Mayor Richard LaBarbiera, recusing himself from any discussions involving the hiring of his son.
According to LaBarbiera’s suit, he and the other nine candidates were all vetted and unanimously recommended by the Borough’s Police Committee which reduced the Council’s formal hiring resolution to merely a ministerial act. He also claimed that since the Borough Code required hiring decisions to be made “without regard to . . . personal, family or political affiliation” it was improper for Vartolone, DiPiazza and Weber to base their opposition upon his familial relationship to the Mayor. He further claimed that the Borough Attorney repeatedly informed Vartolone, DiPiazza and Weber that their “refusal to hire Plaintiff because of his familial relationship was expressly contrary to Borough Code.”
However, when the Republican Councilmembers tried to introduce a resolution at the March 27, 2020 meeting that would hire nine of the officers (i.e. all of the recommended officers except for Vincent LaBarbiera), that resolution was defeated when all three Democrats (Bellinger, Tedesco-Santos and Verile) voted against it resulting in a 3 to 3 tie with Mayor LaBarbiera recusing himself. The minutes of that meeting also show that Associate Borough Attorney Katie Mocco advised that the proposed resolution was “contrary to law and illegal” and that “each member who votes yes for this would be subject to personal liability.”
This lawsuit, which was filed on July 17, 2020, sought no damages. Rather, it sought a court order a) declaring that the Borough Code provision that required hiring decisions to be made without regard to familial relationships was valid and enforceable and b) requiring the Borough Council to not consider a candidate’s familial relationships when making hiring decisions. On October 30, 2020, Superior Court Judge Christine A. Farrington granted the court order that LaBarbiera sought.
Despite Judge Farrington’s Order, Vartolone, DiPiazza and Weber again voted against a November 2, 2020 resolution that sought to hire LaBarbiera and the nine other officers. This resulted in LaBarbiera filing a November 18, 2020 motion that sought to require Vartolone, DiPiazza and Weber to either abstain or vote in favor of the hiring ordinance or to allow Mayor LaBarbiera to vote in favor of the hiring resolution even though it would benefit his son.
The motion was opposed by Vartolone. Yet, on December 4, 2020 Judge Farrington granted LaBarbiera’s November 18, 2020 motion in part by ruling that Mayor LaBarbiera was “never required to abstain” on any of the hiring votes “because the act of voting on those recommendations was purely ministerial” and that the “[t]he choice of candidates is not made by the Mayor and/or Council but by the Chief of Police and the Police Committee.” Councilman Vartolone sought a stay of the December 4, 2020 order pending an appeal but the motion had not yet been heard by the time the Borough Council, on December 8, 2020 voted 4-3 to hire the ten police officers including Vincent LaBarbiera. Mayor LaBarbiera’s vote, as authorized by Judge Farrington’s ruling, broke the tie. On the same day, December 8, 2020, Vartolone appealed from the December 4, 2020 Order.
In this lawsuit, filed on April 15, 2020, Vincent LaBarbiera sought damages from Vartolone, DiPiazza and Weber and the Borough of Paramus for “engag[ing] in an adverse employment action and retaliation based upon [LaBarbiera’s] familial status and/or political affiliation,” intentional infliction of emotional distress, defamation as well as other legal theories. The lawsuit consisted of many of the same allegations set forth in Docket No. BER-L-4174-20. It recited a press release allegedly issued in late March 2020 that quoted DiPiazza as stating: “This is truly a new low for Democrats in Paramus” and “to block the hiring of nine needed police officers in a time of emergency unless Republicans agreed to hire a relative of an elected official is a disgrace.”
In a January 11, 2021 Order, Judge Farrington found that the original complaint was defective but allowed an amended complaint which was filed on February 9, 2021 (see the link in the heading above). DiPiazza then sought to remove the case to the United States District Court but the federal court remanded the matter back to Judge Farrington on September 15, 2021. On November 19, 2021, DiPiazza filed a motion to dismiss and argued that none of LaBarbiera’s legal theories were viable and that as a member of the Borough Council he was absolutely immune from liability for his legislative acts. DiPiazza’s motion was not adjudicated, however, because the matter was settled before the hearing date.
In this matter, filed on January 22, 2021, Councilman Vartolone defended his votes that opposed the hiring the ten officers and complained that the Democrats on the Council insisted that all ten police candidates had to be voted upon as a block and never allowed a vote on just a portion of the candidates. He sought a court order declaring that the December 8, 2020 and December 28, 2020 resolutions that hired the ten officers “be modified to rescind such offer to Vincent LaBarbiera based on conflict of interest” and also to restrain Mayor LaBarbiera “from voting on matters providing a personal benefit to his son Vincent LaBarbiera.”
The lawsuit also referenced his earlier case against the Borough (Joseph Vartolone v. Borough of Paramus, et al, Docket No. BER-L-4083-20) in which he challenged a June 15, 2020 resolution that denied him, along with Councilmembers DiPiazza and Weber, a legal defense to and indemnification in Vincent LaBarbiera suit for damages. In a December 11, 2020 Order, Judge Farrington denied the Borough’s motion to dismiss. On February 12, 2021, a Stipulation of Dismissal was filed that recited that the parties had settled the BER-L-4083-20 matter. (Update: In response to my OPRA request for the agreement that settled Docket No. BER-L-4083-20, Borough Clerk Annamarie Krusznis sent me a March 15, 2022 response advising that the “the case was settled without a formal agreement.”)
On November 19, 2021, Judge Farrington signed an order dismissing Vartolone’s complaint (i.e., the latter complaint, Docket No. BER-L-504-21) “for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.”
Other than Judge Farrington’s rulings noted above, the allegations have not been proven or disproven in court. The settlement agreement expressly holds that none of the parties have admitted to any wrongdoing. Rather, it says that the $250,000 payment “is made by the Borough’s liability insurer and is made solely to avoid the inconvenience and cost of litigation.” Further, the agreement provides that none of the parties will be considered to have prevailed.
The settlement also resulted in dismissal of Vartolone’s appeal of Judge Farrington’s December 4, 2020 opinion. This is unfortunate because it prevents the public from benefiting from Appellate review of a decision that allowed Mayor LaBarbiera to vote to hire his own son. If the Council’s vote on the Police Committee’s recommendations was truly ministerial and non-discretionary, it causes one to wonder why a Council vote on the issue was required in the first place. If the appeals court were to rule that the Council was free to reject or accept the Police Committee’s recommendation, it would follow that Mayor LaBarbiera would have been prevented by the Local Government Ethics Law from voting on his son’s hire.