A protracted legal battle in which a former city police officer alleges mayor Jose “Joey” Torres retaliated against him for picking up a campaign sign for his mother from the opposing camp has cost taxpayers $557,725, according to municipal documents.
That figure is expected to increase as the lawsuit filed by former veteran police officer Jeffrey Heffernan against the city in mid-2006 is scheduled to be heard in the United States Supreme Court.
For almost a decade four law firms – Newark-based Lite DePalma Greenberg; Fairfield-based Potters & Della Pietra; Morristown-based McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney & Carpenter; Secaucus-based Chasan Leyner & Lamparello; and Fairfield-based Dwyer Connell & Lisbona – have been contesting the case in federal courts.
The five firms received $557,725 in legal fees since 2006, according to city records. The case began in the 2006 mayoral election when Torres was running against Lawrence Spagnola, a former city police chief.
Heffernan’s sick mother supported Spagnola. The 20-year veteran picked up a large political sign for his mother which was witnessed by a police officer assigned to the mayor’s security detail. The next day, April 14th, 2006, Heffernan’s supervisors confronted him.
Heffernan told the supervisors he was not politically involved and was simply picking up a sign for his bedridden mother. He was demoted to a walking post because of his “overt” involvement in a political election.
Heffernan initially obtained a jury verdict for $105,000 after a trial before Peter G. Sheridan, United States district judge for the District of New Jersey.
After the trial Sheridan retroactively recused himself due to a conflict-of-interest vacating the jury verdict. The case was re-assigned to judge Dennis M. Cavanaugh who ruled in the city’s favor.
Cavanaugh granted summary judgment in the city’s favor after considering the free-expression claim in the case, but failed to address the free-association claim that had resulted in a favorable jury verdict for the police officer.
Heffernan appealed Cavanaugh’s judgment. A panel concluded Cavanaugh had erred in granting summary judgment without letting both parties file briefs and by failing to consider the free-association claim.
The case was re-assigned to judge Kevin McNulty. McNulty ruled in the city’s favor because “Heffernan had failed to produce evidence that he actually exercised his First Amendment rights.”
Heffernan had maintained he was not politically involved, but that he was picking up a sign for his mother.
McNulty’s March 5th, 2014 ruling withstood an appeal by Heffernan. A panel of judges affirmed McNulty’s ruling on January 22nd, 2015.
Heffernan appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. On October 1st, 2015 the nation’s highest court agreed to hear his case.
The justices will decide: “Whether the First Amendment bars the government from demoting a public employee based on a supervisor’s perception that the employee supports a political candidate.”
Heffernan lawsuit also names former police chief James Wittig and previous police director Michael Walker.