Over the past two years, 2013 and 2014, the city council settled 148 lawsuits paying out a total of $4,771,414, according to settlement records examined by the Paterson Times. This year so far, the city has settled 30 lawsuits paying out $1.53 million.
“I’ve warned about these numbers from the very beginning,” said Kenneth Morris, councilman at-large. Morris said the city’s last annual audit report outlined the city’s litigation risk. In 2013, the city settled 65 lawsuits by paying out $3.38 million; in 2014, the city settled 83 lawsuits by paying out $1.43 million, according to city records.
Four months into 2015, the city has already paid out more in lawsuit settlements than it did all of last year.
Vast majority of the cases have to do with workers compensation. William McKoy, 3rd Ward councilman, said a lot of these cases can be prevented by providing employees workplace safety training. “Too often, we put folks to work, but they haven’t been adequately trained in this area,” said McKoy.
McKoy said training employees to properly handle machinery and trucks will go a long way in reducing the number of workers compensation claims. He said the city also needs a better to track these incidents to be better prepared for litigation. At present the city does not collect “substantive” documentation or evidence of what happened until claims are raised in court at which point the municipality is left to defend itself with insufficient reports, said McKoy.
“We don’t have a comprehensive incident reporting system,” said Mohammed Akhtaruzzaman, 2nd Ward councilman. “Nobody knows what really happened, and the report is never clear.”
McKoy said years ago he suggested bringing on a risk manager whose main job would be to look into these incidents and even investigate them when they are fresh. Council members seem to concur that a risk manager will benefit the city in reducing the number of workers compensation claims.
A risk manager would be able to detected fraudulent claims as well, said Andre Sayegh, 6th Ward councilman.
“When we review and are forced to settle workmen compensation cases, we often times we find there’s no remedial plan in place,” said Morris. “What are you going to do to address this in the future?”
Morris said the city needs to have a plan in place to ensure the same case does not repeat. In 2013, 48 out of 65 of the settlements involved workers compensation cases, according to city records. In 2014, 38 out of the 83 lawsuits settled were workers compensation cases.
Mayor Jose “Joey” Torres’ office said the city is working on guidelines for the risk manager position. Torres has said during his budget presentation that he intends to put in place a risk management system of some sort.
Council members commented on a number of personnel lawsuits that stemmed from the intransigence of former mayor Jeffery Jones’ administration. Morris said the council advised the administration to look into certain administration actions, but the previous administration never listened.
“Up to this day, I’m very uncomfortable with the settlement figure that he [Brian Sweeney] received, and that process you could have seen it coming from ten miles away,” said McKoy. Sweeney, the city’s former economic development director, sued the city after former Community Development Director Lanisha Makle allegedly harassed and demoted him.
Sweeney’s lawsuit cost city taxpayers $312,000.
McKoy said a modernized human resource policy and good affirmative action office could have prevented that and other lawsuits from arising in the first place. “I’m not going to go directly to a lawsuit. I try to talk to my manager, my supervisor, and when I don’t get any redress from that or folks begin to retaliate against me that’s when I go to file a lawsuit,” said McKoy.
“It’s when it isn’t addressed or folks aren’t listened to that it comes to the point of litigation,” commented Morris. He said often when protected class employees are involved there is fee shifting resulting in the city incurring more costs.
Morris said hostile work environment lawsuits can be addressed with proper training. Morris said mayor Jose “Joey” Torres’ administration has been taking some steps to keep these complaints from turning into lawsuits.
“I think the new administration is doing a lot more with regards to making an attempt to keep these things out of litigation,” said Morris.
“We have been faced with numerous cases to resolve, and we are diligently resolving them in order to avoid incurring further legal and personnel costs,” said Torres in a statement issued by his office.
The settlement figures do not include the amount of money the city expended in legal fees on each of the cases.
Although hostile work environment and workers compensation lawsuits were common in the past two years, the most significant settlement paid out in 2013, was the Policemen’s Benevolent Association (PBA) Local 1 case at $1.9 million over the city’s refusal to pay police officers their overtime pay on time.
The city continues to make installment payments for that settlement.
The Sweeney’s case resulted in the largest settlement in 2014.
In 2015 so far, firefighter Joseph Parkin’s discrimination lawsuit that resulted in a $350,000 settlement was the costliest.