JACKSON TOWNSHIP, NJ – Attorney Howard Mankoff, once touted by Mayor Michael Reina as the superstar land-use lawyer who will defend the township against a federal civil rights lawsuit filed by Agudath Israel of America is out. Mankoff came highly recommended by Reina when he was hired to replace nationally renowned RLIUPPA attorney Marci Hamilton. Hamilton walked off the job according to sources inside the township after the township rejected a negotiated settlement in 2019.
In 2020, Jackson Township Mayor Michael Reina fired township attorney Jean Cipriani and hired pay to play attorney Gregory P. McGuckin. Howard Mankoff replaced Cipriani on the case, but according to court filings, has been “terminated” and replaced with Brent Robert Pohlman of Methfessel & Werbel, based in Edison.
Pohlman will represent the Township of Jackson, Robert Nixon, Michael Reina, William Campbell, Helene Schlegel, and Kenneth Pieslak.
Mr. Pohlman was the trial lawyer who represented the Borough of Woodcliff Lake against Valley Chabad. Pohlman, in August, presented a settlement to the borough which the borough voted to adopt.
“Settlement avoids negative findings or illegal judgement against Woodcliff Lake,” the town attorney told the townspeople on August 20th. “It saves money and it potentially resolves the matter once and for all at relatively an early stage of the case. The settlement doesn’t permit a vindication of the Town’s position. It doesn’t allow any vindication of the Valley Chabad’s position and it doesn’t allow vindication through the Department of Justice’s position.”
Pohlman urged Woodcliff Lake to settle with the Department of Justice.
“Things happen that nobody anticipates especially during a deposition. It also involves adverse publicity. Litigation also involves a tremendous cost. In a case of this magnitude, Woodcliff Lake is going to attorney fees to its own attorneys and should it lose, in any way, shape or form, the private action, it will pay the attorney fees of Valley Cha bad as well. Then there will be the cost of expert fees and there could be a judgement against the town. This will result in the town having to de-prioritize other things,” the town attorney said. “These are fiscally challenging times and elected members of this body and taxpayers are going to have to decide what do you want to spend your money on. Remember, if you settle, you compromise.”
The borough, through Pohlman’s negotiated settlement will now have to pay the Valley Chabad $1.5 million in attorney’s fees.
As part of the consent decree approved by Pohlman, the borough will permit Valley Chabad to construct a new Chabad house on its property,” the Department of Justice said about the settlement. “The resolution would also enjoin the borough from acting in a manner that violates RLUIPA and require the borough to establish a procedure for receiving and resolving RLUIPA complaints, train its employees on RLUIPA’s requirements, and submit regular reports to the United States and the court on its compliance. In the separate agreement that resolves the related private action, the borough agreed to pay Valley Chabad $1.5 million to resolve its claims for damages and attorney’s fees that arose from the borough’s conduct.”\
“The statues under which these claims are made provide for compensatory damages, punitive damages, and attorneys’ fees and costs. It is important to note that in the State of New Jersey there is no insurance coverages for punitive damages,” Pohlman said at the meeting. “To obtain a large verdict, a Plaintiff does not need to prevail on all or even most of their claims. In fact, under RLUPIA a Plaintiff does not even have to prove discriminatory intent. There is a theory of liability, one that is being put forth in this case, that allows a Plaintiff to prevail even if it can demonstrate that an Ordinance, rule or regulation of practice presented a substantial burden to the free practice of religion. These cases are extremely fact sensitive and involves thousands of pages of documents, many depositions and multiple experts. There is typically a significant amount of motion practice before the court and lengthy trials. The attorney fees on both sides are very high. In the cost of defense, potential damages are always a factor in determining your litigation strategy.”