Linden has agreed to pay $575,000 to settle a federal civil rights suit stemming from a municipal court case in which the town’s judge served as both judge and prosecutor.
The settlement was awarded to cousins Wendell Kirkland and Anthony Kirkland in connection with irregularities in the handling of a 2010 criminal trial by then-Municipal Court Judge Louis DiLeo. The civil settlement was reached in April but terms were not disclosed at that time. The terms were first reported Oct. 5 on NJ Civil Settlements, a blog run by open-government activist John Paff, who obtained the terms through an Open Public Records Act request.
A Superior Court judge who overturned the Kirklands’ convictions by DiLeo called the episode a “perversion of justice.” The Supreme Court issued a reprimand to DiLeo for his handling of the case. DiLeo had served as the town’s municipal judge since 2003 but the city declined to reappoint him in 2012.
The parties reported to the court in December 2016 that a settlement had been reached in mediation before John Hughes, a former U.S. magistrate judge for the District of New Jersey who is now with JAMS in Philadelphia. The court administratively terminated the case in April.
The settlement agreement dictates that any party or their attorney who receives an inquiry from any third party about the case or the settlement should respond by saying only that “the matter has been settled.”
“The parties agree and understand the confidentiality requirements of this paragraph are a material inducement to their consent to this Agreement, and that a violation of these confidentiality requirements will be deemed a material breach of this agreement,” the settlement document states.
The settlement followed a 2014 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit that said that motions by DiLeo and Linden to dismiss the suit were properly denied. The appeals court rejected DiLeo’s defenses based on absolute judicial immunity and Eleventh Amendment immunity, and upheld counts against Linden based on direct liability and conspiracy. The appeals court found that Linden’s claim that it is not liable for the judge’s acts failed because the plaintiffs provided sufficient allegations that the city tacitly endorsed a practice of denying defendants their constitutional rights. The panel also found that the suit made sufficient allegations of a conspiracy between DiLeo and Linden to raise the right to relief above the speculative level. The suit alleged DiLeo tried the Kirklands after the prosecutor left the court session, questioning the arresting officer at trial and allowing the officer to question the Kirklands.
The suit also claimed that DiLeo did not provide public defenders to the Kirklands and found them guilty of marijuana possession without any lab evidence confirming that the substance they were carrying was indeed marijuana. The suit also claimed that after DiLeo found the brothers guilty, he sentenced them to jail terms that violated a state statute. He gave Wendell Kirkland 180 days in jail and three consecutive one-year terms of probation, and gave Anthony Kirkland two consecutive 180-day jail terms and three consecutive one-year probationary terms. But the suit said state law only allows a term of 90 days to be imposed in municipal court, not 180 days or two consecutive terms of 180 days. DiLeo’s mandate that the sentences were “day for day,” meaning that the normal parole guidelines did not apply, also violated a state law that bars imposition of parole ineligibility in municipal court, the suit claimed.
The Kirklands were each charged with attempted theft after police in Linden found them trying to remove wheels from a vehicle. They were also charged with possession of 50 grams or less of marijuana. The Union County Prosecutor’s Office downgraded the charges to disorderly persons offenses and directed that they be heard in municipal court.
Michael Rubas, the Jersey City lawyer who represented the Kirklands, did not return a call about the settlement. David Schwartz, of Schwartz & Posnock in Eatontown, representing Linden, and Robert Varady, of La Corte, Bundy, Varady & Kinsella in Union, representing DiLeo, also did not return calls.