WEST WILDWOOD – Appellate Court judges decided West Wildwood’s insurer is not responsible for a $1.7 million award to Police Chief Jacqueline Ferentz July 15.
The borough appealed the court’s April 2018 decision that the Joint Insurance Fund (JIF) does not have to pay because the borough didn’t adequately defend itself against Ferentz, who is “housemates” with Mayor Christopher Fox, according to the court decision.
With JIF off the hook, the taxpayers of West Wildwood are paying the award in 200 monthly installments, but Ferentz can choose to collect the full amount at any time.
“We have considered the borough's contentions in light of the record and applicable legal principles and conclude they are without sufficient merit to warrant further discussion in a written opinion,” Judges Joseph Yannotti and Michael Haas wrote in their opinion.
The judges upheld the court’s decision because the borough had nothing new for the appeal.
“(The borough) essentially repeated the same arguments the court previously considered,” they wrote. “The new board members (argued they) were merely taking a corrective ‘governmental action’ to remedy a wrong they believed (former mayor Herbert) Frederick had done to Fox's housemate, long-term friend, and close political ally.”
Ferentz was hired to the police force in 2000 when Fox was in his first term as mayor. Later, she was promoted to lieutenant, “which was the next highest position under Fox's brother” who was police chief at the time.
In 2008, Herbert Frederick was elected mayor and was director of Public Safety and soon, Fox’s brother took a medical leave, eventually retiring, which put Ferentz next in line for police chief.
“Frederick attempted to reform the borough government, including the police department,” the judges wrote. “Ferentz objected to these changes and, in July 2008, filed several complaints with county and state law enforcement agencies accusing Frederick of official misconduct.”
Frederick then conducted an investigation of Ferentz, with an independent hearing officer. She was charged with “making false statements regarding the training of a law enforcement officer,” “unauthorized use of the ‘Acting Chief of Police’ and ‘Chief of Police’ titles,” and “unauthorized absences from work.” The hearing officer recommended the borough fire her, which its governing body did in August 2011.
Meanwhile, Ferentz filed a Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA) complaint against the mayor and the borough. She claimed the investigation was retaliatory.
When Fox was re-elected mayor in 2012, “the new board members, with Fox abstaining, proceeded to pass a series of resolutions ... castigating the former board members for taking disciplinary action against Ferentz, declaring her termination to be null and void, dismissing all of the disciplinary charges against her, reinstating her to the police department, and appointing her as the new chief of police,” the judges wrote.
Weeks before those resolutions, JIF sent a letter to the board reminding they would only defend the borough against Ferentz’s lawsuit if they refrained from taking actions in her favor.
JIF agreed to defend the borough because they felt the independent investigation was enough of a defense against Ferentz.
“The board soon shattered that possibility,” the judges wrote.
That October, the borough “agreed to dismiss her prerogative writ action against the borough in exchange for the borough’s agreement to reimburse her for back pay and other benefits from the time she was out of work.”
The agreement did not resolve Ferentz’s claim against them.
“In fact, it expressly stated that the resolution of the employment case in no way affects (Ferentz’s) ability to pursue her remedies in the CEPA action,” the judges wrote. “In short, (JIF) could no longer assert that Frederick and the 2008- 2012 board had a demonstrable, non-retaliatory, and legitimate basis for the disciplinary actions taken against Ferentz,” they wrote.
Soon, Ferentz voluntarily dismissed Frederick from the lawsuit, leaving the borough as the only defendant. The borough took action against JIF in March 2015.
“Before the declaratory action could be resolved, Ferentz's CEPA claim went to trial,” the judges wrote. “The trial court permitted Ferentz to testify about her termination and the hardships she allegedly suffered before she was reinstated, and barred the borough from asserting that the disciplinary action was justified based on the results of Frederick's investigation, and the independent hearing officer's report.
“Not surprisingly, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Ferentz,” they wrote.
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