A Union City police officer has filed a lawsuit alleging that the chief of the department made “bogus disciplinary accusations” to prevent him from getting promoted to sergeant.
Juan Estrella, a 16-year veteran of the UCPD who also worked at Hudson County corrections for six years, filed an eight-count, 32-page complaint in Passaic County Superior Court on Wednesday.
He alleges that he was passed up for a promotion at least twice, with the first instance being in August 2021, when Chief Nichelle Luster allegedly told Estrella via text message that Mayor Brian Stack, the commissioner of public safety, was against promoting him.
“Contrary to what Chief Luster had stated on August of 2021, Mayor Stack informed Officer Estrella, that he in fact, would be promoted to the rank of Sergeant. Mayor Stack promised Officer Estrella that he would be promoted. Defendant, Mayor Stack hugged Officer Estrella and shook his hand after informing him that he in fact will be promoted,” the lawsuit says.
“On or about February 3, 2022, Mayor Stack called Officer Estrella once again but this time to inform him that Chief Luster did not want to promote him. Mayor Stack directed Officer Estrella to speak to Chief Luster.”
According to the court filing, Luster told Estrella on February 9th that he would not be promoted due to his disciplinary record and, as a result, two officers who scored lower than him on his civil service test would be promoted instead.
Estrella’s lawsuit repeatedly says that “light skinned police officers” were routinely promoted instead of Estrella, who is of Dominican descent.
“Since 2014 when Chief Luster was then a Captain and assisted in decision-making and
since 2018 when Chief Luster became the Chief of Police, Chief Luster has harassed plaintiff by suspending him without cause, without conducting a full investigation, in violation of the New Jersey Attorney General Guidelines AG Directive 2019-5, the internal affairs policy and procedures, and the agreement between the City of Union City and New Jersey State Policemen’s Benevolent Association Union City Local Number 8,” Estrella contends.
“While failing to investigate or suspend questionable actions by other police officer of light skin tone and not of national origin of Dominican Republic.”
In January 2016, Estrella was struck by a car and severely injured his leg, and was hospitalized in January 2017 and January 2018 as complications from the accident led to blood clots, the court filing states.
In January 2018, he was suspended for two days for going over his sick days, despite “life-threatening conditions” with doctor’s notes and medical records provided.
“Chief Luster has continuously and maliciously harassed Officer Estrella with bogus disciplinary accusations and non-warranted suspension, while disproportionally not suspending nor creating similar bogus disciplinary accusations for officers that are not of the national origin from Dominican Republic,” the suit says.
“Chief Luster with knowledge that should Officer Estrella have ongoing investigations, promotion would be denied by the civil service commission; Chief Luster maliciously, intentionally, and knowingly initiated bogus and petty accusations against Officer Estrella with the motive to prevent Officer Estrella from being promoted.”
The lawsuit argues that Estrella had his civil rights violated, which is also a violation of state law, his equal protection and due process were violated, faced breach of contract and promise – along with legal misrepresentation/fraud.
Furthermore, he asserts he was a victim of employment harassment, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and retaliation.
As a result, he is seeking an injunction permanently barring the defendants from such conduct, removing all reports from his personnel file, having his suspension days returned, and compensation for various damages, as well as awarding the costs of attorney’s fees.
Estrella is represented by Tomas Espinosa and Yasmin Estrella, who have two separate private practices in North Bergen.
Luster did not return an email seeking comment on Friday afternoon.