FREEHOLD – Superior Court Judge Jamie S. Perri has denied a motion filed by lawyers representing the county seeking summary judgment in their favor against a former Ocean County detective’s retaliation lawsuit that named Ocean County Prosecutor Joseph Coronato, numerous county officials & the county of Ocean as defendants. The lawsuit will now move forward to the discovery phase.
In late July, the latest hearing in the Mecka case was held at the Monmouth County Courthouse in Freehold over Ocean County’s motion for summary judgment, which was filed in lieu of a formal answer admitting or denying allegations made in Mecka’s complaint.
“An oral decision was issued at the hearing on July 21, 2017 and the motion was denied without prejudice,” said Janet Slocum, an administrative specialist from the Monmouth courthouse. “There are no future court dates scheduled at this time,” she added in response to an OCP inquiry.
Mecka’s complaint was originally filed in Ocean County Superior Court on May 4th, 2016. The complaint, alleges violations of the Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA), among other claims.
In court filings, Mecka claimed that he faced retaliation after he blew the whistle on purported misconduct, and that the prosecutor’s office was “…concealing the criminal activity of politically influential individuals and police personnel.”
After the initial hearings in the case, county lawyers unsuccessfully argued for the case’s dismissal. Before July’s hearing, the case was adjourned on May 26th, 2017 due to a “temporary docket reassignment and at the request of counsel,” Judge Perri said in open court.
Before he filed suit Mecka was employed as investigator by the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office where he worked on, among other things, public corruption cases, specifically those arising out of Little Egg Harbor.
“He was investigating allegations of fraud, official misconduct, theft, quid pro quo, land deals, MUA improvements, vehicle transfers and purchases, township contracts / awards, bid rigging, extortion, drugs, police misconduct, and more, all arising in Little Egg Harbor,” Mecka’s attorney George Cotz wrote in the original complaint.
Lidaka: Amended Mecka Complaint Doesn’t Comply With Order For A More Definite Statement
Mary Jane Lidaka, an attorney from the law firm of Berry, Sahradnik, Kotzas & Benson, appeared at the July 21st hearing on behalf of the county officials named as defendants in the suit. Lidaka argued that the second amended complaint does not comply with Judge Perri’s previous order for a more definite statement, which was granted after another hearing held on a different date.
Perri’s order granting the county’s motion for a more definite statement stipulated that Mecka amend his allegations to be “clear concise and coherent.” In granting that motion, Judge Perri criticized the complaint’s language as “vague and disjointed.”
“The court finds that the amended complaint, as presently framed, is so vague and disjointed that defendants cannot reasonably identify the rudiments of plaintiff’s legal claims or distinguish the basic facts supporting the claims from seemingly irrelevant, inflammatory statements that relate to events that occurred over 10 years ago,” she said.
Lidaka also took issue with Mecka’s reliance on the continuing violation doctrine to get around CEPA’s 1-year statue of limitations on the claims in the lawsuit. She argued that Mecka can’t “string all the discrete acts together like a necklace” to claim that the continuing violation doctrine applies to his case.
“Just making vague allegations of retaliation without specifics can’t be used to constitute a hostile work environment,” Lidaka told the judge at the hearing.
Cotz: Mecka Disciplinary Hearing Was Lacking
In response to Lidaka’s claim that some of Mecka’s legal arguments advanced in support of reinstating Mecka’s employment are barred because of the disciplinary hearing that was held before a retired judge, Mecka’s attorney claimed that his disciplinary hearing lacked certain protections, such as the ability to cross examine witnesses called by the opposite side, additional discovery and call additional witnesses of his own.
“Detective Mecka had a much more circumscribed hearing before a retired judge here,” Cotz said, arguing that a case cited by Lidaka shouldn’t apply. “There was no opportunity for discovery.”
Judge: I’ve Never Seen That Before In My Life
Judge Perri was clearly frustrated both at the language of the Mecka complaint as well as an apparent confusion of legal standards by both sides regarding the motion for summary judgment. “This is the second time that the court has been presented with a motion by the defendants that cites as its statement of facts the allegations contained in the complaint and then the plaintiff admits the allegations of the complaint,” Perri said. “I’ve never seen that before in my life.”
“Normally summary judgment motions are filed after discovery has been conducted, the moving party sets forth a factual basis for the motion with citations to the motion record that are intended to demonstrate that there are no issues of material fact which require resolution by a jury.”
“The other side then has the opportunity to respond to the statement of facts and to submit evidence on their behalf that they claim creates the genuine issue of material fact,” she said.
“Somehow in this case we have veered off onto this road where the motion is one to dismiss for failure to state a claim because the court is expected to accept the allegations as true, but at the same time the court is expected to apply the summary judgment standard.”
Judge: Mecka Complaint Is “Scatalogical”
Even though Perri threw out Ocean County’s summary judgment motion in its entirety, she still was highly critical of the language of Mecka’s amended complaint and how it can support his attorney’s claim under the CEPA law.
“It is clear that further consideration of the matter is hampered by the rambling, scatological nature of the plaintiff’s complaint and its piecemeal amendment,” the judge said at the hearing.
In reaching her ruling, Perri also emphasized that summary judgment should not be granted before the completion of the discovery phase of the case, in order to ensure there are no factual issues.
“I urge the parties to clarify the issues, prepare a coherent factual record and, if appropriate, bring the matter before the court in a format in which the court can actually address the legal issues,” Judge Perri concluded. “The motion is denied in its entirety without prejudice.”
Ocean County Politics has requested case documents regarding this case from the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office under the state Open Public Records Act, however they did not provide the documents in time for this article.