A woman officer in the Belleville Police Department who attributed her collapse while on duty to discrimination-related stress agreed to a $1.1 million settlement of her Essex County suit on Wednesday.
Heydi Portalatin was one of three or four women on the force of roughly 100 Belleville, New Jersey, officers when she was hired November 2011, and the first to work on the night shift, where policy requires officers to work in pairs, said plaintiff lawyer Adam Kleinfeldt. But some of those officers did not want a female partner, and Portalatin was subject to false complaints to superiors about her job performance as well as unwelcome remarks about her appearance and physique, the suit claimed.
Portalatin was attempting to arrest a 200-pound man who was under the influence of narcotics at an accident scene in April 2013 when another officer who was nearby refused to help, the suit said. Portalatin called for backup, but the other officer later said her call was not loud enough. Ultimately, a firefighter who responded to the accident helped her arrest the man, the suit claims. The suit claims the other officer’s refusal to assist Portalatin was a form of harassment.
Ultimately, Portalatin was assigned to work the night shift on her own, in violation of department policy, the suit claims.
In April 2013, after she reported to a colleague that she was experiencing harassment, Portalatin was ordered to work as a dispatcher. An order was issued that all patrol officers would learn how to work as a dispatcher, but no other officers had to do so besides Portalatin, the suit claimed.
In May 2013, when she received a commendation for her productivity in issuing summonses and completing reports, one officer told others she received the award because she was having a sexual relationship with her supervisor, the suit claims.
In September 2013, after she responded to a traffic incident involving an off-duty lieutenant in the department who appeared to have been drinking, she was told to leave the scene. Portalatin was dispatched, but another officer told her to disregard the dispatch and said he was handling the call. She believes that the other officer intended to “clean up” the episode without arrests or reports, according to the suit.
On Oct. 6, 2013, she made reports to two superiors about incidents of harassment she said were over her gender. On the same day, she began seeing a therapist to discuss the hostile work environment she faced.
The next day, during a meeting to discuss her allegations of gender discrimination, a lieutenant told her to “suck [it] up and deal with it,” the suit claims. Later on that day, while on patrol, she began arguing with her partner, when she told him to pull over because she felt physically ill.
Later, after she was taken to a hospital, her neck and back were in severe pain and the right side of her face began twitching uncontrollably. Her right arm became partly paralyzed and her mouth would not open, the suit said. She remained hospitalized for 10 days, with a diagnosis of conversion disorder, in which emotional stress caused weakness on the right side of her body, and neuro-cardiogenic syncope, which causes her blood pressure to drop when she suffers stress. Now 36, she uses a walker and has difficulty walking.
In October 2014, a physician for Belleville agreed with the plaintiff’s contentions that stress caused her physical condition, said Kleinfeldt, who is with Deutsch Atkins in Hackensack, New Jersey. He represented the plaintiff along with Christopher Perez of Hanna Perez in Fort Lee, New Jersey.
Kleinfeldt said he was prepared to show that police department management knew about the officers’ conduct toward the plaintiff and did nothing to stop it.
“This is not about the entire Belleville Police Department being bad cops—it was a few people,” Kleinfeldt said.
Wednesday’s settlement came after the first day of trial before Superior Court Judge Mayra Tarantino in Essex County.
The lawyer for Belleville, Richard Grodeck of Piro, Zinna, Cifelli, Paris & Genitempo in Nutley, did not return a call.