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Judges revive civil rights case against Linden officials, state Senate president

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Judges revive civil rights case against Linden officials, state Senate president

Aug 10, 2022 | 12:29 pm ET
By Dana DiFilippo
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Judges revive civil rights case against Linden officials, state Senate president
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The case revives past criticism of Senate President Nicholas Scutari, whose critics say was often a no-show prosecutor when he worked for Linden, a charge he has denied. (Photo by Danielle Richards for the New Jersey Monitor)

A federal appeals court has ruled in favor of a woman who sued Senate President Nicholas Scutari and Linden officials for wide-ranging civil rights violations stemming from how they handled a 2007 harassment charge against her.

U.S. Circuit Judge Thomas Lee Ambro, writing for a three-judge appellate panel, says plaintiff Yasmine Coello’s February 2020 lawsuit — which was dismissed by a lower court judge on statute-of-limitations grounds — can proceed because the lower court judge was wrong about when the clock ran out on Coello’s claims.

Attorney Joshua F. McMahon, who represents Coello, said her case proves that New Jersey’s legal system requires massive reform.

“This case is emblematic of a much larger problem: Bad apples in government are virtually never held accountable,” McMahon said.

Coello’s case revives past criticism of Scutari, whose critics say was often a no-show prosecutor when he worked for Linden. Scutari, a Union County Democrat who ascended to the Senate presidency in January, has denied those claims. Wednesday, he denied them again, telling the New Jersey Monitor, “That’s absolutely incorrect.”

Coello’s allegations of abuse at the hands of Linden officials date to January 2007, when a woman named Shirley Messina filed a private citizen complaint in Linden against Coello for harassment. Coello at the time was dating Messina’s former boyfriend David Figueroa.

Coello pleaded not guilty, and the charge was dismissed.

“That should have ended the story. But, for reasons still unknown to her, it didn’t,” Ambro wrote in his decision.

In February 2007, Cranford attorney Kathleen Estabrooks asked Louis DiLeo, then Linden’s municipal judge, to appoint her to prosecute Messina’s complaint against Coello. At the time, Scutari was Linden’s municipal prosecutor in addition to being a state senator.

Scutari said Wednesday it was common practice back then for citizens who filed private complaints to request private prosecutors when such complaints did not arise from any police or official investigation.

DiLeo approved Estabrooks’ petition to prosecute Coello, even though she failed, as required, to say whether the municipal prosecutor decided not to prosecute and also failed to disclose she represented Messina in separate custody and other civil actions against Figueroa, Ambro wrote.

More problems surfaced at trial, such as DiLeo agreeing to Estabrooks’ request to remove Coello from the courtroom while prosecution witnesses testified, Ambro wrote. DiLeo ultimately found Coello guilty of harassment and sentenced her to a month in jail, suspending the sentence on the condition that she attend anger-management counseling.

At a post-trial hearing in January 2008, DiLeo said Estabrooks alerted him that Messina had filed another complaint, accusing Coello of assaulting her in Clark, Ambro said. Scutari was absent at that hearing, Coello appeared with no attorney, and Estabrooks attended the hearing as Messina’s attorney to urge DiLeo to incarcerate Coello — and DiLeo did, ordering her to jail for 30 days, Ambro wrote.

From jail, Coello hired an attorney, and she won release after 18 days.

After the state Supreme Court reprimanded DiLeo for “egregious legal errors” in an unrelated case, Coello in November 2016 petitioned to vacate her harassment conviction, arguing her case too was rife with legal errors.

“The state (wisely) did not oppose Coello’s application,” Ambro wrote.

A state judge vacated her conviction in February 2018.

In her 2020 civil lawsuit, Coello accuses Scutari, DiLeo, Estabrooks, the city of Linden, and others of violating her constitutional rights to counsel, to confront witnesses, and to a fair trial by conducting proceedings without her attorney present, booting her from the courtroom during adverse witness testimony, and illegally transferring prosecutorial duties to Estabrooks. She also accused Linden officials of deliberate indifference to such misconduct, conspiracy to violate her civil rights, and cruel and unusual punishment.

A federal judge dismissed Coello’s lawsuit, agreeing with Linden officials that she waited too long to sue. But Ambro’s decision kicks the case back to the district court, saying Coello’s claim can proceed because she had to wait for her conviction to be overturned to seek damages for the alleged abuses she suffered during her criminal proceedings.

Scutari said Wednesday he shouldn’t be a defendant here because he had nothing to do with Coello’s harassment case.

“My name just brings an interesting light to it, but I have nothing to do with it,” he said. “Never saw the case. Didn’t prosecute the case. Somebody came in and wanted to prosecute it, made an application, the judge granted it, and someone else prosecuted it. Nothing to do with me. Nothing to do with me being there or not. And that was pro forma back then.”

McMahon, Coello’s attorney, said his client and other Black and Brown people suffered for over a decade in Linden “at the hands of this racist white Linden judge, while the white Linden prosecutor (and current Senate president) was nowhere to be found, even though he was paid tax dollars to be the prosecutor.”

Watchdogs alerted the Union County Prosecutor’s Office and a supervising judge to such problems, McMahon said, but they ignored such warnings for fear of offending Scutari, a longtime chair of the Senate’s judiciary committee.

Estabrooks declined to comment because she hasn’t seen the ruling, a woman who answered the phone at her law firm said Wednesday. Linden officials didn’t respond to a request for comment.