The City of Newark has agreed to pay $4 million to more than 190 former police cadets to settle a federal class action suit charging they worked unpaid overtime at their training academy in 2017 and 2018, according to court documents and the plaintiffs’ lawyer.
At the same time, a related whistleblower suit in state court is headed for arbitration after being filed by a Newark detective, charging he was the victim of retaliation from superiors for his role in the class action suit.
A settlement hearing in the class action is scheduled for Jan. 4, according to an order by federal Magistrate Judge Jose R. Almonte of U.S. District Court in Newark in response to a request by both sides in the case.
John C. Luke Jr., who represents the officers, told NJ Advance Media that he and his clients looked forward to finalizing the settlement, which the judge must approve.
“We are currently awaiting preliminary approval from the court, which will take place on Jan. 4, 2024,” Luke said in an email. “This was a particularly satisfying result for the former cadets. I believe that both sides are happy with this result.”
Cheyne R. Scott., the city’s outside counsel, declined to comment on the proposed settlement, referring questions to the city. Newark’s top in-house lawyer, Corporation Counsel Kenyatta Stewart, also declined to comment on the settlement, which Law360 previously reported.
The class action suit was filed against the City of Newark by three named plaintiffs, Malikul Aziz, Ronnie Cruz, and Rudan Ramshani, all former Newark cadets who attended the New Jersey State Police Training Academy in Sea Girt. Aziz and Cruz attended the academy in 2017, and Ramshani attended in 2018. They filed the suit on their behalf and the behalf of over 190 other cadets in their graduating classes.
The suit charges that, as the cadets’ employer, the city violated the federal Fair Labor Standards Act by failing to pay them overtime for work they did during their 16-week stints at the academy, where they bunked from Monday morning through Friday night.
The suit charges that the cadets were paid $17.50 an hour for a 40-hour week of training but unpaid for up to an additional 8 hours a day they worked cleaning and maintaining their barracks, showers and other areas of the academy.
“Following their scheduled shifts, Defendant required Plaintiffs to work beyond their scheduled shift times on a regular basis and failed to pay them for such time,” states the complaint, filed Aug. 11, 2020.
In a response filed by Scott that October, the city admitted having employed the plaintiffs as cadets but denied the allegations of unpaid wages.
Spokespeople for Newark Mayor Ras J. Baraka and the Department of Public Safety, which includes the police force, declined to comment on either suit. Anthony Ambrose was Newark’s public safety director from 2016 to 2021 but is not named in the suit and declined to comment.
Baraka, elected in 2014, and Ambrose, whom the mayor appointed two years later, presided over hiring hundreds of officers, including many of the former cadets involved in the class action suit.
Aziz filed the whistleblower suit in Newark Superior Court in June 2022 and amended it that December. Aziz, now a Newark detective, was president of his cadet class and, as a rookie officer in 2018, received a departmental medal of honor for rescuing a drowning 2-year-old child, according to the suit.
The suit says the department retaliated against Aziz for his participation in the class action by, among other actions, confiscating his firearm ahead of tryouts for Newark’s SWAT team, rendering him unable to participate and depriving him of the chance to join an elite unit that would enhance his standing and career opportunities.
The suit asserts that after the class action’s filing, “the Department served Plaintiff with a preliminary notice of Disciplinary Action, alleging a number of purported violations of the Department Rules and Regulations.” The suit said the department suspended Aziz but later reinstated him.
The suit states that the disciplinary action notice was served on Aziz two days after a captain in the department requested his personnel records related to the class action.
The suit demands compensatory and punitive damages for back pay, missed career opportunities, emotional distress and other consequences of the alleged retaliation.
Aziz referred questions to his lawyer in the whistleblower suit, Steven A. Varano, who did not respond to a request for comment. The city’s response to the whistleblower suit denied the assertions. Scott, who filed the response on March 10, declined to comment.
The period during which Aziz alleges retaliation predates Newark’s current public safety director, Fritz Fragé. The director at the time was Brian O’Hara, who left the city last year to become Minneapolis’ chief of police. A spokesman for O’Hara, who is not named in the suit, declined to comment.
No arbitration session has been scheduled in the case.
Stewart, Newark’s corporation counsel, said the city was open to the arbitration process.
“The city is always willing to talk to people and to hear what they have to say,” he said.
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