The Borough of West Wildwood could end up on the hook for a million-dollar award to its police chief over a lawsuit filed against the former mayor.
A Cape May County jury recently awarded $1.165 million to Jacquelyn Ferentz, who filed a whistleblower lawsuit accusing former mayor Herbert Frederick of interfering with police business in 2008, while she was acting police chief.
Later, she was suspended from the department, only to be re-hired and promoted to police chief after a change in government.
Typically, municipalities look to the Joint Insurance Fund (JIF) to cover the bulk of legal awards. West Wildwood and dozens of other municipalities are part of the Atlantic County JIF, which allows towns to pool their resources for coverage that is more affordable than traditional insurance. The JIFs, in turn, get together for the New Jersey Municipal Excess Liability JIF, or MEL, to cover big-ticket liability. Typically, that would include million-dollar court awards.
Whether it will this time is to be determined.
“There was a jury decision in this matter, and at this point, the issue of who is responsible for paying that jury award is an open matter,” said David Grubb, the executive director for the MEL. He declined to elaborate or comment further on the case.
Current Mayor Christopher Fox took office in 2012, promising a change from Frederick’s administration. That included bringing Ferentz back as chief, although Fox abstained from that vote, according to media reports at the time.
Neither Fox nor Ferentz responded to calls requesting comment for this story.
Michelle Douglass, Ferentz’s attorney, said the bulk of the award – $790,000 – related to distress and emotional damages, while the remaining $375,000 relates to economic damages.
Her client had already settled with the borough over her lost wages while she was suspended, Douglass said. The additional award related to her house being foreclosed upon during that period.
The defendants have 45 days to file an appeal.
Douglass acknowledged that there was a dispute between the borough and the MEL over who would be responsible to pay the award, but said she could not provide further detail. Her firm, My Rights Lawyers, is based in Somers Point.
In a phone interview July 31, she said Frederick overstepped his authority as mayor by trying to control the day-to-day operation of the department.
In the one-week jury trial before Superior Court Judge James Pickering, Douglass said, the defense tried to present the dispute as simply a matter of politics. “We tried it as a whistleblower suit,” she said. Under the law, someone who is punished for calling attention to the wrongdoings of a superior is entitled to specific protections.
Douglass was not sure what would happen next, saying she’s playing a waiting game until the 45 days are up. She said she has grown close to Ferentz since starting to represent her in the dismissal matter in 2008.
“This case has been ongoing for such a long time,” she said. “We’ve been in this together for a decade.”
Frederick could not be contacted for comment. He told a reporter from NJ.com that he thought he’d been dropped from the lawsuit.
“I didn’t know there was an active lawsuit,” he stated, as reported by Jeff Goldman of NJ Advance Media. “I’ve never given a deposition. I was never questioned.”
He was not called as a witness during the trial, Douglass said.
“I didn’t call him. I didn’t want to call him. And the other side didn’t call him,” she said.
Douglass did not have much detail on the dispute between the MEL and West Wildwood, although she allowed that she would rather go after the MEL, which has much deeper pockets than the tiny borough.
With an approved budget of a little over $2.6 million for 2017, a million-dollar award could have a big impact in West Wildwood.
West Wildwood is just under a mile from end to end, with a year-round population of about 600 and a reputation for taking its politics personally. Before leaving office, Frederick was the subject of a recall drive. In 2015, a couple settled a suit for $350,000 over what they alleged was retaliation from Frederick over the recall election. That suit was settled with no admission of wrongdoing.
Including the chief and one sergeant, the West Wildwood Police Department website lists nine officers in the department.