Court scolds NJ councilman who quit and sued town over ‘hurt feelings’
GALLOWAY — A South Jersey politician who sued because he didn’t like what other elected officials said about him has been told by the state’s courts to … well, deal with it.
Former Democratic Councilman Dennis Kleiner quit his elected position in 2012. He then sued the municipality, the mayor, and another councilman claiming he had been forced to resign because of the rumors and false charges they made about him.
But a Superior Court judge, who called his “hurt feelings” lawsuit “pointless,” threw out the complaint.
An appellate court panel on Thursday upheld the judge’s decision.
Kleiner’s tenure in this Atlantic City suburb of 37,000 people was marked by several scandals and legal controversies. The township had to pay a total of half a million dollars to settle wrongful termination lawsuits by the former municipal clerk and a zoning officer.
In his lawsuit, Kleiner said his due process and free speech rights were violated because he chose to resign after being accused of sexually harassing the municipal clerk, having an affair with her sister and threatening another councilman with violence — all of which he denied.
Kleiner said the comments were retaliation against his political stances.
Kleiner didn’t find sympathy in court. The judge overseeing the case said Kleiner’s “complaints over his hurt feelings, damaged reputation and potential embarrassment fall far short of violation of his First Amendment rights.”
“This court will not condone this pointless litigation over [his] disappointments in the world of politics to linger any longer,” the judge said when he tossed out the lawsuit more than a year ago.
The appellate decision Thursday added that Kleiner “was an elected official whose position subjected him to public scrutiny whether it be fair or unfair.”
The three-judge appellate panel noted that “another politician may not have resigned under the same circumstances.”
“This court has never found First Amendment retaliation protection to extend to politicians who have been the target of negative comments and does not do so now. Such political disputes are bets left to be resolved in voting booths, not courtrooms.”
Kleiner on Thursday evening said he had not had the chance to review the latest decision with his attorney.
“I don’t agree with what the judge decided, but it is what it is.”
Sergio Bichao is deputy digital editor at New Jersey 101.5. Send him news tips: Call 609-438-1015 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.