About 1,800 people who have spent time in a crowded New Jersey jail have inundated federal court officials with lawsuits after an apparent hoax led them to believe money from a settlement was waiting for them.
The former inmates filed lawsuits at the federal courthouse in Camden, apparently after a rumor spread that anyone who had spent time in the overcrowded Camden County jail could get paid if they sue.
Officials say the hoax was perpetuated by people who claimed they received money and others passing out papers on city streets.
U.S. District Judge Jerome Simandle said he’s proud everyone has access to the federal court system, but that it’s troubling the suits were spurred by false information.
“There are no checks. There is no fund. And anyone who says they are getting checks or, worse, who is somehow profiting from this, that is just cruel,” Simandle said.
The Camden County prosecutor’s office also has investigated reports that a man was selling paperwork to file the lawsuits, which is available for free at the courthouse.
Court officials say the lawsuits are overwhelming clerks. Simandle said the courthouse typically gets about 200 civil filings a month, but was getting 50 filings per day at one point. He posted a notice in the courthouse in October informing people that there was no settlement money awaiting former inmates, and then posted a second notice last week after hundreds more lawsuits came in.
“People would say, ‘I’m here to get my check,’” said Marcy Plye, the deputy clerk in charge at the courthouse in Camden. “They’d say, ‘How long before I get my check?’ I’ve never seen anything like it.”
It’s not known where the rumor started, but Simandle speculates it derived from a federal civil rights lawsuit filed against the jail in 2005. Attorney Lisa Rodriguez, an attorney representing the inmates involved in that suit, said the population of the jail has fallen below the 1,300 inmates it was built to house. There were more than 1,800 there in 2009.
Rodriguez said she expects to settle the suit soon, but the suit only sought improved jail conditions and doesn’t request any compensation for inmates.
“I hate saying, ‘I can’t help you,’” Rodriguez said. “And the fact that they are being given false hope makes it worse.”