ATLANTIC CITY — John Mooney’s demotion from police chief was retaliation for him blowing the whistle on action by the city’s administration, a jury found Wednesday, awarding him more than $3.7 million. Superior Court Judge Nelson Johnson previously ruled that the court is not in a position to reinstate the former chief, a role Mooney said he stands ready to do. Instead, the payout includes what Mooney would have made if he had retired in several years.
The jury also found the damage to Mooney’s career and reputation is worth another quarter-million dollars.
The jury deliberated less than five hours before reaching its verdict, asking three questions that all had to do with the money award.
“It sends a message loud and clear to City Hall,” the former police chief said after the verdict, adding that he was satisfied the jurors were able “to see through the smoke and mirrors.”
Mooney’s suit alleged the city used mass layoffs in 2010 as a way to get rid of the chief’s position because it was known there was no other way to oust the veteran officer with no disciplinary history. He said it was retaliation for him reporting what he saw as wrong, and possibly illegal, behavior by the city, Mayor Lorenzo Langford and then-Public Safety Director Christine Petersen.
The jury not only agreed, but found that the city’s actions were “wantonly reckless and malicious,” calling for punitive damages. However, by a vote of 7-1, they ruled to give him no money for that.
Jurors may have been influenced by the argument of Langford’s attorney, Robert Tarver, who pointed out that Langford and Petersen would not be the ones paying, since the judge previously ruled only the city could be financially liable.
“The municipality is made up of taxpayers,” Tarver said. “They’re the ones who wind up paying.”
Tarver also said the ruling will be appealed.
“Quite frankly, there were a number of different considerations this jury should have made, but did not make,” he said. “This is just the first step in a long road.”
Tarver said the case was fraught with legal difficulties, including disagreement over the validity of the chief’s contract.
Prior to the civil trial, a judge ruled that Mooney’s contract was breached. The city has said it will appeal that ruling as well.
The city maintains that the contract approved by Mayor Scott Evans days before Langford won election in 2008 is not valid because it was not approved by City Council, Tarver said.
While the jury is done its job, there will be another meeting Friday between the judge and lawyers to determine the final tally for what the city will owe Mooney.
The jury found $815,476 would fill out the contract Mooney had that ended Dec. 31, 2012, and then more than $2.7 million would take him until his retirement date. However, there may be some overlap in those dates.
The exact date the jury decided for Mooney’s retirement is unclear. Mooney’s attorney John Donnelly presented two possible years during the trial: 2015 and 2019, when Mooney would reach 65.
Throughout the case, the city argued that while Mooney might have believed he was being targeted, there was little evidence showing the city had devised a “scheme” to get rid of him.
But former PBA President Dave Davidson Jr. testified that the mayor had met with him asking how to get rid of the chief. The defense questioned that conversation, portraying Davidson as a foe of the mayor, including recently battling him for the Democratic nomination in the mayoral primary.
Langford issued a statement through his aide, Eddie Lax, late Wednesday night.
"This is AtlanticCounty, therefore, as ridiculous as this verdict is, it is not surprising," the mayor said. "As usual, the only way for the city, under my stewardship, to have a shot at a favorable decision is through the appellate process. As for now, Almighty God knows, and that is sufficient for me."
Donnelly called the jury selection the most arduous he’s seen. The judge said only one he’s witnessed topped it.
But the great lengths that were taken to pick a “smart” jury paid off Wednesday, Donnelly said.
“We’re completely gratified by what the jury did,” he said.
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