A Somerset County judge has tossed out a whistle-blower lawsuit that alleged an investigator was transferred because he reported that evidence had been mishandled and thrown out in the 2014 high-profile death investigation of Cooper University Health System's CEO John Sheridan and his wife, Joyce.
The dismissal is the latest twist in the high-profile case and controversial conclusions by the Somerset County Prosecutor's Office that Sheridan killed his wife, set fire to the couple's master bedroom in Montgomery Township, and then stabbed himself five times.
The couple's four sons are disputing the findings.
Somerset's Superior Court Judge Yolanda Ciccone's dismissal late last week does not mean that the whistle-blower lawsuit is over. David Zatuchni, the lawyer for Detective Jeffrey Scozzafava, said the judge "improperly" applied the law and he is preparing an appeal. Scozzafava, who still works for the prosecutor's office, filed the lawsuit in April after he was removed from Somerset's elite forensic team and transferred to the fugitive squad.
Jack Bennett, spokesman for the Somerset County Prosecutor's Office, and Leland Moore, spokesman for the Attorney General's Office that oversees prosecutors, said their offices would not comment on the judge's decision.
Zatuchni said the lawsuit "goes to the heart of public-integrity concerns in our criminal justice system."
"Clearly, improper and fraudulent forensic practices by a law enforcement agency, as alleged by Mr. Scozzafava in his lawsuit, impact directly on the public interest and welfare in the most serious manner imaginable," Zatuchni said.
"It is absolutely critical to the public interest that a law enforcement whistle-blower with respect to such sensitive issues, as Mr. Scozzafava is, be fully protected from retaliatory harm to his person or career for coming forward and refusing to be silent," he said. "Anything less acts as a deterrence to other whistle-blowers coming forward and can perpetuate improper conduct by our government."
The Sheridans' four sons - Mark, Matt, Dan, and Tim - believe that Somerset authorities prematurely decided their parents' deaths were murder-suicide, botched the investigation, and then manipulated evidence to support their theory. The sons' petition to the state medical examiner to overturn the suicide ruling has been pending for more than a year.
Scozzafava's lawsuit does not address whether there is evidence that contradicts the prosecutor's 2015 conclusions, or the significance of the evidence destroyed, specifically charred bedding.
The lawsuit alleged supervisors took away the SUV Scozzafava needed to transport his equipment to crime scenes, and then reassigned him to the fugitive squad after he told his supervisors his concerns about the way evidence had been handled in three cases - the Sheridan investigation, another murder investigation, and a drug case. The two other cases occurred before the Sheridan deaths.
In June, Somerville attorney Charles Schalk, representing the prosecutor's office, requested the dismissal, arguing that although Scozzafava was reassigned, he was not demoted or otherwise negatively impacted.
"Here, the employment action that the plaintiff complains about is, at worst, being assigned a Chevrolet rather than a Dodge, and that he has a different assignment as a full-time detective in the same office," Schalk wrote in court documents.
Zatuchni argued that his client, whose police experience spans three decades - including 20 years with the State Police where he retired as a forensic expert - was negatively impacted because he no longer receives the amount of overtime he had earned on the forensic team, and he was put into a more dangerous and less desirable job with no training.
In 2015, Scozzafava earned $547 in overtime, most of that before he was transferred. From 2012 through 2014, he earned $2,136, $2,780, and $1,686 respectively in overtime. In 2015, his overall salary was $108,412.
In 2016, Scozzafava was elected president of the International Association of Bloodstain Pattern Analysts with more than 800 members worldwide. According to court documents, he was told he may not be able to remain as president because he is no longer a practicing forensic analyst.
"My professional status and career as a criminal forensic analyst, built over two decades of pain-staking commitment to the field, has been gravely harmed, if not altogether destroyed by the SCPO's actions," Scozzafava wrote in a court certification for his lawsuit. He also alleges the transfer was "a transparent effort to get rid of me altogether."
Instead of working a crime scene or in a lab, Scozzafava has daily responsibilities that include going into drug dens and other dangerous locations to arrest those wanted on warrants, according to court documents.
On Friday, the judge heard oral arguments and dismissed the case immediately afterward.
Scozzafava was out of town Sept. 28, 2014, when the Sheridans were found dead.
Concerned about the investigation, the couple's sons hired a forensic pathologist to conduct an independent autopsy on their father.
That pathologist, Michael Baden, concluded that the Sheridans were more likely both killed by an intruder in part because investigators never recovered the weapon that caused John Sheridan's stab wounds; his broken ribs and a chipped tooth were consistent with an attack; and he had shown no signs of mental illness and had been known for his calm demeanor.