Ocean County Courthouse (Ron Saari)
A criminal defense lawyer who was arrested at the Ocean County courthouse for allegedly assaulting his client in the midst of a proceeding has settled his civil rights case for $55,000.
Matthew Reisig of Freehold said the lawsuit “has been settled by financial compensation to my full satisfaction.”
“My actions were lawful and entirely in keeping with providing effective assistance of counsel,” he proclaimed in a statement issued June 5.
Reisig was arrested for assault on April 18, 2012, after a sheriff’s officer claimed she saw him punch a client who was seated beside him during a hearing before Superior Court Judge Mark Troncone.
An obstruction-of-justice charge was added later because, following the arrest, Reisig refused to provide information about himself other than his name and business address.
Both charges were subsequently dropped at the request of the prosecution.
On the day in question, Reisig was in Troncone’s courtroom on a domestic violence hearing for longtime client Vincent Lovari, a “high-strung overwrought individual who, in stressful courtroom situations was often loud, excitable and difficult to control,” according to the complaint in Reisig v. Ocean County Sheriff’s Office.
As Reisig and Lovari were about to take a seat in the front row, the sheriff’s officer assigned to the courtroom, Christine Farrell, told them they could not sit there. Reisig called that a “superfluous directive” that left him puzzled.
As they waited for Troncone to take the bench, Lovari became “agitated and quite vocal” and Reisig “sternly and vociferously reprimanded him” to “rein in” his emotions, the complaint said.
When Farrell asked whether there was going to be a problem, Reisig “brusquely” replied that “her interference with privileged lawyer-client communications was both unneeded and unwelcome.” Allegedly “incensed,” Farrell “returned to her post in the courtroom eager to find some way to exact retribution for plaintiff’s effrontery.”
Later, while the hearing was underway, Lovari became “agitated and disruptive,” prompting Reisig to “verbally rebuke” him and “touch him innocuously in an effort to curtail his inappropriate behavior.” Farrell then gave Troncone a note saying she had seen Reisig “punch Mr. Lovari in the side area.”
Troncone, who had not seen anything improper and thought Farrell had “compromised her professional neutrality,” had her leave the courtroom and the hearing was adjourned until another officer took her place, Reisig alleged.
Farrell, embarrassed by her removal from the courtroom, “sought to justify her unprofessional behavior by conspiring with fellow officers and superiors to orchestrate plaintiff’s arrest on a bogus charge of assault,” Reisig alleged.
As he was reentering through the security checkpoint after lunch, Farrell and two other officers handcuffed him and took him to a processing area where, “in an appalling illustration of law enforcement run amok,” he was booked, fingerprinted and photographed on an assault charge, despite Lovari’s “protestations … that plaintiff had neither assaulted nor injured him,” Reisig said.
The second charge, for obstruction of the administration of the law, was added five days later.
The case was moved to Burlington County, where on Nov. 8, 2012, Assistant Ocean County Prosecutor Michael Abatemarco asked Superior Court Judge Charles Delehey to dismiss both charges because he was “not able to sustain the burden” of proving them.
Reisig’s suit, filed in February 2013 in federal court in Trenton, named Farrell, the sheriff’s office and others, claiming wrongful arrest, malicious prosecution, negligent training and supervision of the officers, and violation of his constitutional and civil rights.
The complaint noted that the county had been sued before by a lawyer over a confrontation with sheriff’s officers. In 1998, public defender Robert Konzelmann claimed he was going past a crowded security checkpoint when a colleague with a backpack full of files brushed against an officer who was bent over using a security wand and the officer, assuming Konzelmann bumped him, asked for an “excuse me.” Konzelmann said he ignored him, thinking he was joking, but was arrested later that day on an obstruction charge and spent a few hours in jail because he would not provide information. As with Reisig, the charges were later thrown out and Konzelmann filed a civil rights suit, which settled in 2000 for $67,500.
The county asked for summary judgment dismissing Reisig’s suit on the grounds that the arresting officer had probable cause and was protected by qualified immunity. U.S. District Judge Joel Pisano denied the motion without a written opinion last October.
The settlement was reached in April and paid at the end of May.
Reisig declined comment beyond his statement, which referred to the “disappointment and shame that I felt upon being unlawfully arrested and detained without legal justification by an overzealous sheriff’s officer.”
He said “no financial settlement could ever serve as recompense” for having to tell his 19-year-old son that he had been arrested “for merely representing my client.”
The statement expressed gratitude to Steven Nelson, who defended him pro bono from the criminal charges, and Robert Varady, who represented him in the civil rights case.
Neither Nelson, of Nelson, Fromer, Crocco & Jordan in Neptune, nor Varady, of LaCorte Bundy Varady & Kinsella in Union, returned a call seeking comment.
The county’s lawyer, John Sahradnik of Berry, Sahradnik, Kotzas & Benson in Toms River, said it settled as a matter of efficiency, not because it expected any liability.
Konzelmann, now a Howell solo, said he and Reisig “were certainly well compensated for our short time spent in custody.” His own arrest was on the front page of the newspaper and “all I wanted was an apology,” but “a point had to be made,” he said.
Contact the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org.