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Amoresano v. Laufgas

January 29, 2002


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Verniero, J.

Argued October 22, 2001

On appeal from the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

The issues raised in this appeal involve the judiciary's summary contempt power. We are called on to determine whether the trial court erred in imposing jail sentences of varying lengths on the same litigant after finding him in contempt on three separate occasions. In accordance with Rule 1:10-1, the trial court founded the first adjudication on a series of letters and certifications in which the litigant made highly disparaging comments about the judge. Pursuant to Rule 1:10-2, a different judge based the second adjudication on the court's findings that the litigant had violated numerous provisions of a temporary restraining order. Finally, under that same rule, a third judge held the litigant in contempt based on the court's finding that he had attempted to intimidate a witness and opposing counsel.

A divided panel of the Appellate Division affirmed the three adjudications. We affirm the disposition in the first and third actions, and reverse the disposition in the second action.


Given the long, circuitous path on which this case has traveled, a brief road map is in order. The City of Paterson (the City) and its Chief of Police, Vincent Amoresano (collectively, plaintiffs), filed a Chancery Division action in June 1996 against Bernard Laufgas (defendant). Somewhat ironically, that action, which also centered on alleged disruptive conduct on the part of defendant, provided the medium in which defendant engaged in the separate acts of contempt that are the subject of this appeal.

Plaintiffs' action sought both temporary and permanent restraints. Over the lengthy history of their dispute, the parties appeared before several judges. Judge Saunders considered plaintiffs' request for temporary restraints, entering those restraints in July 1996. Two years later, Judge Passero presided over an eight-day trial, and ruled in favor of plaintiffs in respect of their application for permanent restraints. In the interim, Judge Passero addressed numerous pre-trial issues. Although named as a plaintiff, the Passaic County Prosecutor's Office essentially ended its participation in April 1997 for reasons not relevant to our disposition.

Judge Passero adjudicated the first of the three contempt charges that grew out of plaintiffs' underlying Chancery Division action. Two other trial judges respectively adjudicated the second and third contempt charges. We will first describe the facts pertaining to plaintiffs' action, derived largely from the trial testimony presented before Judge Passero. We then will outline defendant's conduct that formed the basis of the three contempt adjudications.


At all times relevant to this dispute, defendant was a resident of Barnegat. In February 1996, defendant traveled to the City to photograph furniture and garbage left by former tenants of a dwelling owned by his wife. In response to a telephone call from the owner of a neighboring house, a City police officer arrived at the scene to investigate whether the debris was being left in front of that neighbor's property. The officer testified that when he approached defendant to discuss the neighbor's call, defendant became "arrogant" and "nasty."

After defendant twice refused to identify himself, the officer charged him with obstructing a governmental function in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:29-1. The officer also issued defendant a ticket for obstructing the sidewalk with the debris. After the issuance of that summons, defendant's contact with City officials intensified and grew increasingly adversarial. Defendant filed a complaint with the Police Department's Office of Internal Affairs, alleging that the officer who had issued him the ticket had made racial slurs toward defendant. A different officer investigated that complaint and concluded that there was no basis for it, a finding accepted by Chief Amoresano.

A third officer testified that on several occasions defendant disrupted the employees working at the police chief's office. As an example, the officer explained that defendant would demand to see Chief Amoresano without an appointment. When those requests were refused, "[defendant] would become hostile, he would become abusive; he'd raise his voice [so] that it would be totally disturbing[.]" On one occasion, the officer escorted defendant out of police headquarters after he purportedly became abusive and refused to comply with repeated requests to leave. Defendant subsequently filed a criminal complaint against that officer, charging him with official misconduct. That complaint was later dismissed.

A parking violations officer testified that she had encountered defendant when she was issuing summonses to vehicles parked at the City's public safety complex. According to the officer, she observed defendant in a small gray car that was parked illegally. When she informed him that he needed a parking permit, defendant yelled at the officer. Defendant ordered the officer to issue summonses to the police cars found in the same area, cars that defendant contended also had been parked illegally.

The officer issued only a warning to defendant. Nonetheless, he purportedly followed her and yelled at her for approximately forty minutes as she tried to continue her duties. The officer further testified that she had felt threatened by defendant's behavior, and that his conduct had interfered with her work. Defendant later filed criminal charges against the parking violations officer, alleging official misconduct because she had refused to issue tickets to the marked patrol cars.

A police captain testified that he had observed defendant in the municipal parking lot in the section reserved for court employees and municipal court judges. The officer stated that defendant was recording license plate numbers and photographing vehicles. The officer later learned that defendant had obtained the home addresses of police officers through records obtained from the New Jersey Division of Motor Vehicles. After photographing the cars of City officials, defendant issued "citizen parking violations" for vehicles owned by City employees.

The City's clerk testified that defendant had sent a letter to the Mayor requesting that he (defendant) be permitted to inspect a large number of documents. The clerk estimated that those documents, some of which dated as far back as sixteen years, would have amounted to about 500,000 pages. She also testified that when defendant visited the clerk's office "he demand[ed] information . . . and he often [became] abusive and disruptive[.] . . . [M]y staff tr[ied] to assist him[,] and when they [could not] assist him [] they [would] call me out because they [were] afraid[,] and they [felt] that [he was] disrupting the office." In the same vein, the clerk noted that "because of the nature of his comments and language that he use[d]," her staff was fearful of defendant. Defendant filed criminal charges against the clerk for official misconduct, but those charges eventually were dismissed.

Another City employee, a license inspector, testified that defendant came to his office and disrupted the employees working there by announcing that he was suing the City. Defendant allegedly asserted that he had a right to publish the home addresses of public employees. The inspector also testified that defendant "made a comment about Miss Susan Champion, the City Attorney. He stated that . . . Susie thought she was cute, but she screwed herself. He did not elaborate on that."

Another police officer, a lieutenant who had been assigned to the records bureau in 1996, testified that defendant had requested numerous police reports. When asked to pay the copying charge for those documents, defendant allegedly became abusive and refused to pay. The lieutenant also testified that defendant went to the records bureau "for all different kind[s] of reports not relating to anything," and did not offer his staff the specific information necessary to locate the requested documents. According to the officer, when members of the bureau staff tried to clarify defendant's request, "he became abusive, nasty, [and] called them stupid, ignorant, [saying] that's the only job they could get working for the City." The officer noted that if he had produced all of the police reports requested by defendant, they would have amounted to over a million pages. He described defendant as using loud and abusive language after his requests had been denied and stated that such conduct intimidated other citizens looking for records.

A sixth police officer, a sergeant, had contact with defendant. The sergeant testified that he had been called to the public works department because "there was an individual fighting inside the office." According to the officer, when he arrived on the scene, he heard defendant insult at least three female employees by "calling them incompetent[] idiots." Defendant purportedly spoke loudly and belligerently, and was aggravating those around him. The officer testified that it took him at least five minutes to persuade defendant to leave the office and that defendant was "nasty" and "insulting" to the women working there. The sergeant also expressed the view that employees at the public works department were unable to function when defendant was in their office. Consistent with past practice, defendant filed criminal charges against the sergeant, alleging official misconduct. Those charges were later dismissed.

Plaintiffs filed a complaint and applied for an order to show cause in the Chancery Division in June 1996. Specifically, plaintiffs sought to restrain defendant from mailing discovery requests or communications "of any nature" to City employees at their home addresses; from obtaining or publicizing the home addresses of City employees; from going to the homes of City employees; from entering public buildings unless defendant had a purpose that could not be satisfied by telephone or mail; and from engaging in "loud, abusive, or disruptive conduct" in public buildings. They sought also to require that defendant mail all pleadings and discovery requests directly to the City's attorneys rather than serve or deliver such documents personally.

On the return date of the order to show cause, Judge Saunders considered numerous affidavits of City employees describing defendant's conduct as well as the arguments presented by the parties. Defendant represented himself pro se, a practice that he has maintained throughout the course of this litigation. The trial court entered the temporary restraints in an order dated July 17, 1996, the relevant portions of which are as follows:

1. The [d]efendant . . . is hereby restrained from contacting or communicating in any fashion, including but not limited to mail, with employees of the City of Paterson, including but not limited to Paterson police officers, at their home address[es].

2. The [d]efendant . . . is restrained from going to the homes of any employees of the City of Paterson including but not limited to Paterson police officers.

3. The [d]efendant . . . is restrained from obtaining or publicizing the home addresses of City of Paterson police officers or any party to this litigation, including specifically restrained from obtaining said information from the New Jersey Division of Motor Vehicles.

4. The [d]efendant . . . is restrained from personally serving papers of any kind, including, but not limited to summonses, complaints, and discovery requests on any employee of the City of Paterson. The Corporation Counsel's office of the City of Paterson shall accept all mailings from the [d]efendant . . . and acknowledge service of same. In the event that service of said pleadings cannot be made by mail, the Corporation Counsel's office of the City of Paterson will acknowledge personal service of said papers on the part of the City or any employee thereof. Said service on the Corporation Counsel's office shall constitute good service on any employee of the City of Paterson.

5. The [d]efendant['s] . . . access to City of Paterson public buildings is limited to those in which he has legitimate business. Defendant['s] . . . access to said buildings is specifically conditioned on his advising the office of Corporation Counsel of the City of Paterson by telephone in advance at least 2 hours of his entering any City building and the purpose for his entry into said building.

6. The [d]efendant . . . is restrained from abusive or disruptive conduct while in public buildings of the City of Paterson.

11. These preliminary restraints will continue until the final trial of this matter.

Defendant filed a motion asking the court to reconsider those temporary restraints. The court denied that motion. Defendant also filed a complaint entitled "Cross Complaint in Lieu of Prerogative Writ." That complaint sought disclosure of certain records and documents described above, see ante at ___ (slip op. at 6), and attempted to revive defendant's previous bias complaints against the police department. The complaint named the Mayor as one of the defendants, in addition to other officials. The complaint was later dismissed.

Defendant also filed a criminal complaint against Judge Saunders and his law clerk. Like others filed by defendant, that complaint was later dismissed. Nevertheless, Judge Saunders recused himself from the litigation in August 1996. The case was then assigned to Judge Passero. The court thereafter restrained defendant from filing further criminal complaints against any person involved in the proceedings without first obtaining a probable cause finding from a neutral judicial officer. Although the time for discovery had passed in plaintiffs' Chancery Division action, the court permitted defendant additional time to serve interrogatories.

In June 1997, defendant filed a motion seeking to disqualify Judge Passero. He also sought disqualification of the City's attorney, Susan Champion. Judge Passero denied those motions, stating that he regarded them as "totally frivolous[.]" The court further stated that

[defendant] somehow has to learn that because a judge makes a ruling he does not like, that does not give him the right to file criminal charges against the judge, to threaten charges against the judge, to file ethics charges against the judge and the like. We have an appellate process. Lawyers are bound by that. Litigant[s] have to be bound by that.

There is a criminal law provision that deals with attempts at intimidation where cases are pending. And it seems to me that that provision may very well apply to the type of conduct that has been going on in this case before Judge Saunders [and] before me[.] All while they're pending, these threats are being made.

Judge Passero also continued to address the issue of interrogatories. The court limited defendant to fifty single- part questions to the City and fifty single-part questions to Chief Amoresano. Because defendant apparently did not comply with that order, the court denied defendant's subsequent motion to compel interrogatory answers. The court, however, gave defendant thirty days to serve new interrogatories that complied with its original order.

On December 10, 1997, defendant sent Judge Passero a letter stating in part:

I am sorry to say I believe Susan Champion is the type of lawyer, that will sell her mother and father for two bits. While she gets great paid [sic] for her representing [the City], all I am attempting to [do is] defend my rights thought [sic] all those lies she is submitting to the court. . . . Judge Passero, I believe, this case is run[] from the 2nd floor of the City of Paterson, not from the Passaic County Courthouse.

Defendant served his second set of interrogatories in December 1997. Plaintiffs responded about a month later. Defendant stated in a February 2, 1998, letter to Champion: "You are not my attorney . . . you[r] sole function in this matter is to be a good little girl and respond. You may have your way with Judge Passero[.] I don't know what you do[] with him to get your way, but in this matter you will respond." On its face, the letter does not indicate that it had been copied to Judge Passero. The court, however, received a copy of it on February 5, 1998, presumably as part of the record of the litigation.

On February 9, 1998, defendant asserted in another letter to Champion that he considered the City's responses to his interrogatories to be "evasive or unanswered," and that "[w]hile Judge Passero and yourself entered into a conspiracy to limit me to 100 question[s] and no oral deposition . . . [y]ou file[d] this civil action on behalf of [the City] for the sole reason to harass me[.]" Defendant sent a copy of that letter to Judge Passero in addition to other members of the judiciary. Defendant thereafter filed another motion to dismiss plaintiffs' action.

The parties appeared before Judge Passero in March 1998. At that time, the trial court noted that the case was scheduled for trial in April. The court suggested that defendant obtain the services of counsel. (The court had urged defendant to retain an attorney on more than one occasion.) Defendant rejected that suggestion. The court also determined that plaintiffs "fairly, fully, and adequately" answered defendant's interrogatories and thus denied defendant's motion to compel additional ...

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