NJ prosecutor pays woman who was locked in psych hosp for text
HACKENSACK — A former Bergen County employee who was locked up for days in a psychiatric facility after sending over what she says was a mistaken text message will get $625,000 to settle her lawsuit.
The federal complaint was filed by Barbara Harrington against then-Prosecutor John Molinelli, Chief Information Officer Kenneth Ardizzone and her neighbor, Patricia Speake-Martin.
Harrington's lawsuit described itself as "a civil rights case involving the abuse of power by Bergen County's highest crime fighting officer," who "as a favor to a personal friend, former business partner, and long time neighbor, had an innocent woman and nearly 30-year employee of the Bergen County Prosecutor's Office seized."
Harrington worked for the Prosecutor's Office for 30 years until 2013. Her most recent title was senior data processing programmer. She claims her issues started in 2011 and 2012 when she was facing foreclosure and Speake-Martin served as her attorney. She said in 2012, when it looked like she would lose her home, colleague David Martin invited her to stay with him. Martin and Speake-Martin, however, were estranged at the time, which made Speake-Martin "displeased" with the living arrangement, the lawsuit said.
Harrington said on Sept. 21, 2012, she sent an "erroneous" text message to Martin's children using the phone he had lent her. The message said "Someone reported David Martin in an accident." She said the confusion happened because the phone's voice dictation software had picked up another voice in addition to hers.
After realizing the error, Harrington said she reached out to the children to assure them that everything was fine. Speake-Martin, however, had seen the message sent in error on one of the kids' phones and told Molinelli about it. Ardizzone later "insinuated" that she had filed a false report about Martin being in an accident, according to the lawsuit.
Harrington said she apologized to Speake-Martin the next day, but her neighbor threatened to go after her job.
In the days after the incident, Martin attended a meeting with prosecutors and was told that Harrington was a "sick" person and a "danger" to herself and others, including his children, according to the lawsuit. Despite Martin's efforts to defend his friend, Molinelli intimidated him into agreeing with them.
Harrington said she was eventually told that she was being committed to a psychiatric ward for 72 hours. She said that on the way to the psychiatric facility at Bergen Regional Medical Center she was given a letter by one of the people in the meeting informing her that she had been suspended with pay.
In defending themselves against the lawsuit, county prosecutors argued that she could not argue a claim of seizure under the Fourth Amendment because she was never threatened or subjected to physical force.
They said Harrington "appeared extremely nervous and somewhat unkept (sic)" when she arrived at the meeting, and that there were "small bandages on the tips of almost all of her fingers." While Harrington attributed the bandages to issues with her blood levels, the defendants said they were told that she had a history of scratching her fingertips until they bled. They also said that she was "bordering on confused" at the meeting. The defendants also said that Harrington had undergone a previous psychiatric evaluation in 2008.
The prosecutors also claimed in legal filings defending themselves that Harrington's account of the incidents leading up to her being discharged from the hospital "demonstrates the Plaintiff is incorrectly relying upon her subjective perception of events" and not an objective perspective.
"In point of fact, plaintiff does not identify a single threat or command issued by any of the Defendants, at any time, during her meeting with them, in the library or at Bergen Regional," prosecutors argued in court.
After being interviewed by several people, including a physician who "expressed disbelief" that she had been committed over a text message, Harrington said she was released. Harrington said she was treated by her physician for "trauma, feelings of fear and helplessness, and insomnia, among other impairments."
She was also ordered to undergo a fitness-for-duty exam before returning to work, which she also passed, according to the lawsuit. The doctor who conducted the exam did note that Harrington "was extremely nervous and anxious and opined that she could not return to work," according to the lawsuit.
Harrington said she was forced to resign on May 1, 2013.
Her lawsuit had sought at least $10 million in compensatory and punitive damages.