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Amoresano v. Laufgas

SUPERIOR COURT OF NEW JERSEY APPELLATE DIVISION


November 28, 2007

VINCENT AMORESANO, CHIEF OF POLICE AND THE CITY OF PATERSON, PLAINTIFFS-RESPONDENTS,
v.
BERNARD LAUFGAS, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.

On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Passaic County, Docket No. C-74-96.

Per curiam.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Argued: October 24, 2007

Before Judges Cuff and Simonelli.

Defendant Bernard Laufgas appeals from the August 7, 2006 order finding him in violation of an April 1, 2002 judgment. The judgment details the actions that defendant may and may not take to communicate with present and former employees of the City of Paterson and their families.

Over the years, defendant has sought broad access to public records maintained by the City of Paterson regarding construction activities and code enforcement in the City. Defendant has also had numerous confrontations with police officers in the City. Amoresano v. Laufgas, 171 N.J. 532 (2002) details conduct by defendant that led to three contempt adjudications against defendant. The Court affirmed two of the contempt adjudications. One of the adjudications was based on letters and certifications that were sent to or filed with the Assignment Judge during the course of defendant's litigation with the City, and the other adjudication was based on defendant's intimidation of a witness and the City attorney. Id. at 548-49.

The Court also noted that this court had ordered modifications to certain provisions of the final restraining order governing defendant's conduct and communication with City employees, and that the terms of the final restraining order and this court's order to modify the terms of the order were not before it. Id. at 549. The judgment that defendant was found to have violated is the final restraining order as modified following the decision of this court.

Judge McVeigh found that defendant violated the restraints contained in Paragraphs 1(a) and 1(e) of the April 1, 2002 Judgment. Paragraph 1(a) provides that:

Bernard Laufgas is restrained from contacting or communicating in any fashion with, including but not limited to mail, and approaching directly the person of, present or former employees of the City of Paterson and their families, including, but not limited to Paterson Police Officers, at their home address, or with the families of City of Paterson employees at their home addresses or places of employment, if the purpose of such contact is to harass, annoy, disrupt, threaten, intimidate or otherwise engage in any conduct which would constitute an offense pursuant to any municipal ordinance, state or federal statute.

Paragraph 1(e) provides in relevant part that:

Defendant Bernard Laufgas is restrained from entering into the public buildings of the City of Paterson, including but not limited to City Hall, Frank X. Graves Public Safety Complex, Department of Health and Department of Public Works, unless his presence is required by law, including but not limited to, a subpoena or court order. Defendant Bernard Laufgas may retain an agent or designee to enter said buildings on his behalf for any other purpose. In the event Bernard Laufgas feels it is necessary for him to personally enter any public building, other than as required by law, he must set forth in writing the reasons why it is necessary for him to attend to such business in person and further why said business cannot be conducted by telephone and mail and that Bernard Laufgas will utilize proper decorum while conducting such business. . . .

The conduct giving rise to the finding that defendant violated the terms of the April 1, 2002 judgment concerned defendant's submission of several letters addressed to City officials requesting access to public documents. Judge McVeigh found that the scope and tone of the demands were made with the purpose to harass and annoy and the remarks made about the Assignment Judge and the Corporation Counsel exhibited a lack of proper decorum. Judge McVeigh also determined to award attorneys' fees to the City. The Corporation Counsel submitted a certification of services and the judge awarded attorneys' fees in the amount of $1017.50.

On appeal, defendant argues his conduct did not constitute an offense pursuant to an ordinance or a state or federal statute. He also argues that he did not violate paragraph 1(e) because the statements cited as violative of the April 2002 judgment were not uttered in a public building. He also contends that the phrase "proper decorum" is vague and incapable of enforcement. Finally, defendant submits that Judge McVeigh erred in awarding attorneys' fees.

All of the statements that form the basis for the finding that defendant violated the terms of the April 1, 2002 judgment are contained in a series of letters sent by defendant to City officials, including the Corporation Counsel and City Clerk.

All contain language described by Justice Verniero as "highly disparaging." Amoresano, supra, 171 N.J. at 536. The letters contain broad requests for public documents previously held improper and ineffective under the Open Public Records Act, N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1 to -13. The letters also contained comments and statements of the same character that had been held in prior litigation as a proper basis for a sanction under Rule 1:10-1. Amoresano, supra, 171 N.J. at 552-53. There can be little doubt given the protracted history of defendant's interactions with City officials, including having incurred sanctions for similar communications, that defendant wrote these letters with the purpose to harass and annoy the Corporation Counsel and the City Clerk.

We reject defendant's contention that the terms of paragraph 1(a) require that his conduct must violate a municipal ordinance or a state or federal statute. The provision uses the disjunctive "or"; it does not provide that the harassing or annoying communication must also violate an ordinance or statute.

On the other hand, we agree that defendant did not violate paragraph 1(e) of the April 1, 2002 judgment. Paragraph 1(e) governs access to public buildings and defendant's conduct if he enters a public building. That paragraph was not implicated in his conduct in this instance.

Judge McVeigh also acted within her authority to impose attorneys' fees. R. 1:10-3; R. 4:42-9(a)(7). Plaintiffs submitted a certification of services. The tasks performed and the amount charged are reasonable. R. 4:42-9(b).

Affirmed as modified.

20071128

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