Jackson Township threatened with federal sanctions after stalling Department of Justice investigation

Entrance Gate Robert F Kennedy Justice Department Building Pennsylvania Avenue Washington DC Completed in 1935

JACKSON TOWNSHIP, NJ – Jackson Township may soon face federal sanctions which could include withholding of state and federal funding if the township continues stalling the ongoing Department of Justice civil rights lawsuit against it.

The Department of Justice this week claimed the township, led by Mayor Michael Reina a defendant in an ongoing civil rights lawsuit has been stonewalling the federal government and delaying responses to the government.

DOJ tired of playing games with Mayor Reina

Mayor Reina has played a cat and mouse game with the Department of Justice since the case began and now, the DOJ has grown tired of the mayor’s stall tactics. While many in town want the mayor to continue fighting the lawsuit, experts say playing hide and seek games with the Department of Justice is not the way to do it.

Now, the DOJ says time has run out for Reina and the township. It has issued a federal court order to Jackson Township giving the township until April 2nd, 2021 to respond to all outstanding “Request for Production”. This order comes days after Township Attorney Greg McGuckin settled a similar suit with the department in Toms River. If the township and Reina do not comply, the township could lose all or some of its federal funding and any state funding received through federal funding.

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The DOJ has also set a drop-dead date of April 9th for township Attorneys Greg McGuckin and Brent Pohlman, and his legal team to meet with the Department of Justice for the production of electronic records on file with the township and to meet with federal investigators.

Jackson Township must provide all requested discovery documents requested by the Department of Justice no later than April 16 or face federal sanctions. The U.S. District Court of New Jersey demands to have a conference call meeting with township lawyers on April 21st.

Why is the Department of Justice suing Jackson?

Last May, the DOJ sued Jackson Township after the township held a meeting and refused to comply with previous consent orders demanded by the department.

The complaint alleges that the township passed two ordinances, and the planning board applied those ordinances in a manner that discriminated against the Orthodox Jewish community, in violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA) and the Fair Housing Act (FHA). Both ordinances expressly prohibit dormitories throughout Jackson, making it impossible for religious boarding schools such as Orthodox Jewish yeshivas to establish there. Although Jackson passed these ordinances to prevent dormitories anywhere in Jackson, the planning board has since approved, without requiring a variance, the plans for two nonreligious projects with dormitory-type housing.

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Religious discrimination has no place in our society and runs counter to the founding principles of our nation,” U.S. Attorney Craig Carpenito said. “No religious community should ever face unlawful barriers or be singled out for inferior treatment. This complaint reflects our continued commitment to combat discrimination and unequal treatment.”

Reina hires lawyers fast and fires them faster

Jackson Township Mayor Michael Reina has played musical lawyers since the case began, hiring and firing five different lawyers since the case began. Reina fired previous township attorney Jean Cipriani. He also fired Marci Hamilton, the RLUIPPA expert that recently helped Toms River Township resolve their impending federal lawsuit.

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 was fired last fall by Reina.   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.

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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.

Pohlman, like his predecessor Marci Hamilton, recommended the township settle the lawsuit to avoid costly fines and penalties against the township.

“Settlement avoids negative findings or illegal judgment against Woodcliff Lake,” the town attorney told the townspeople of Woodcliffe Lake, who settle a similar case which he represented last August.  “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.”

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“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.”

Township Attorney McGuckin is also a settler

Greg McGuckin who represents Jackson as the township attorney also suggests settling the case. McGuckin just helped settle another federal lawsuit in neighboring Toms River. That McGuckin brokered settlement forced the township to reduce restrictions against Synagogues and houses of worship from 10 acres to 2 acres. McGuckin heads the legal department in Jackson Township also. His firm also represents the Township of Lakewood.

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