Atlantic City Local Settles Defamation Suit

In a settlement made public Jan. 4, the City of Brigantine, N.J., agreed to pay $1.2 million to an ex-public works director who claimed he was fired for complaining about other officials’ wrongdoing. The plaintiff, John Costello, also agreed to take an undisclosed sum to drop a defamation claim against Int’l Bhd. of Teamsters Local 331 of Atlantic City.

Costello was fired in 1998 after three years on the job because he refused to play ball with city officials engaged in improper activities, including the wrongful use of city property, according to a federal suit  filed by Gregory Saputelli, a partner in Obermayer, Rebmann, Maxwell & Hippel. City officials told Costello, for example, to have his department build a private road with city-owned dirt in protected wetlands for the convenience of a councilman’s constituents, he alleged. He also said he was punished for blowing the whistle on chiseling by employees of the department. Costello’s most dramatic allegation is that city officials and members of Local 331 defamed him after a member of the union, Joseph Manera, killed himself and his wife. Reports on WMGM-TV in Wildwood, based on interviews with union and city officials, suggested that Costello’s management style contributed to the crime, the suit said.

During summary judgment proceedings before U.S. Dist. Judge Jerome B. Simandle (D.N.J., H.W. Bush) last year, the city presented evidence that officials did nothing wrong and that Costello was fired because he was a harsh and unyielding boss who harassed his employees. But Simandle ruled there was enough evidence to take the case to the jury, although he did dismiss the defamation claims against the city defendants and the television station and its reporters, represented by lawyers at Atlantic City’s Fox, Rothschild, O’Brien & Frankel, partner Jack Gorny and associate Sherri Affrunti.

The $1.2 million settlement with the city defendants was reached on Dec. 20, but was not disclosed until an Atlantic City newspaper invoked the Right To Know Law, obtained the terms and published them on Jan. 4. The city was represented by Matthew Giacobbe, a partner at Teaneck’s DeCotiis, FitzPatrick, Gluck &  Cole, and by associate Peter Tucci.

Saputelli says his client received a retraction letter from the Local 331 but that a confidentiality agreement bars him from saying how much the unions defendants paid to settle the case. Their lawyer, Peter Marks Sr., a solo practitioner in Northfield, did not comment. [N.J.L.J. 1/21/02]