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New Jersey: Appellate Court Shoots Down $7.5 Million Verdict in Prison Whistleblower Case

by Chad Marks

Lisa R. Easley was a longtime New Jersey prison employee. She began her career in February 1996 as a prison guard, and by 2009, after forking over some bribes, became an assistant superintendent.

The pay-for-play scheme within the New Jersey Department of Corrections began after Easley met Lydell B. Sherrer while working at the Northern State Prison. At the time, Sherrer was an administrator at that facility. As he moved up the ladder, he was able to secure positions for those who wanted to advance their careers through cash payments.

Sherrer did just that for Easley, who paid bribes of $500 in 2006 for a shift assignment, $2,500 in 2007 for a position in the DOC’s Special Operations Group and $7,500 in 2008 to become an assistant superintendent – a position for which she was not qualified, according to court records. But the money she paid to Sherrer landed her the job anyway.

Easley’s stint as assistant superintendent at the Alfred C. Wagner Youth Correctional Facility lasted only a short time because the FBI got wind of the scheme. When the dust settled, Sherrer was sentenced in 2013 to 46 months in federal prison on an extortion charge, after admitting he solicited $69,000 in bribes from eight prison employees.

Easley lost her plum position in January 2012 after an investigation by the DOC; she was demoted and then fired. She later filed a lawsuit arguing that she was terminated for being a whistleblower. She took the case to trial and the jury heard evidence that Easley had cooperated with the FBI by wearing wires, by admitting that she took payments from other employees for Sherrer and by turning over the names of other staff members who paid for promotions.

The jury awarded her $6.5 million in punitive damages and $1 million for distress. The trial judge included another $1 million for Easley’s legal bills. However, her newfound fortune, like her job as assistant superintendent, was short-lived.

The Appellate Division reversed the verdict on July 17, 2019, at least temporarily, when it held the jury should not have been allowed to hear certain evidence during the trial.

“Considered separately or collectively, the prejudicial impact of the improperly admitted evidence undermined the reliability of the resulting verdict,” the court wrote.

A new trial was ordered where Easley must refute the state’s theory that she was not a whistleblower “because she actively participated in and committed a criminal act” by paying bribes to secure promotions. She must again show that she was fired in retaliation for helping to expose the bribery scheme in which she took part. See: Easley v. N.J. Dep’t of Corr., 2019 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 1643 (NJ App. Div. 2019) . 

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Additional sources: courier.com, nj.com