Michael Inzelbuch, the Board of Education attorney replaced last year as part of an overhaul of the public school district, is embroiled in a legal battle against his former employer.
The school system claims he should be barred from representing students in lawsuits against the district.
In a lawsuit filed by the district against Inzelbuch, the former board attorney is accused of “an impermissible and nonwaivable conflict of interest” as district officials attempt to prohibit him from representing special-education students in lawsuits to garner alternative — and more expensive — educational services.
“I sue districts throughout the state, and Lakewood is hard-pressed to service its ever-growing special-education population,” Inzelbuch said Friday. “Lakewood is disorganized chaos, and there is a reluctance to help special-education students even when issues clearly existed. There is no one home to talk to there.”
The school administration is inexperienced and unqualified to handle the job, he said.
So far, the district has failed to keep Inzelbuch from suing. Superior Court Judge A. Frank Buczynski Jr., sitting in Toms River, refused to remove Inzelbuch from a case involving autistic 7-year-old twins in the district.
Inzelbuch worked for the district for a decade and helped create the district’s special-education program, serving also as its coordinator. His contract was not renewed after the April 2012 school election, which changed the balance of power of the board.
Six months after he was replaced, Inzelbuch began to actively recruit students as clients to sue the district, according to the district’s lawsuit filed in December.
District officials contend in the lawsuit that Inzelbuch cannot take on cases against the district because he was intimately involved in every aspect of the special-education program as well as the board’s business practices.
Board Attorney Stephen J. Edelstein said he also plans to file a conflict-of-interest lawsuit with judges of the Office of Administrative Law, where special-education appeal cases generally are heard.
Inzelbuch said he had no prior relationship in the district with the students he now represents. After the interview, Inzelbuch fired off an email to Edelstein.
In the April 25 email, which Inzelbuch copied to the Asbury Park Press, he told Edelstein: “It has come to my attention that you are yet again espousing baseless allegations as to the undersigned and the status of any conflict. Please cease and desist immediately.”
“As I have told you on many occasions — your firm needs to be out of Lakewood but I am not interested at this time in returning under current circumstances. As to being their(sic) for the children — you would not know what a Lakewood kid — public or non-public was even if you fell over him/her,” Inzelbuch writes.
Newspaper story as evidence
Edelstein quotes in his suit from the May 3, 2012, “Cheated” series published in the Press as evidence of Inzelbuch’s unprecedented involvement.
“For 10 years, Michael I. Inzelbuch has been the voice, face and, some say, the brains and muscle behind the Lakewood Board of Education,” the Press article stated.
In his response, Inzelbuch includes the full article emphasizing comments made by Carl Fink, board president, before the April election that shifted power.
The article stated: “For good, better or worse, without Michael, this district would be history,” said current school board President Carl Fink, who has often clashed with Inzelbuch. “Michael is the only person who really knows what is truly going on.”
According to the suit, Inzelbuch on Dec. 24 emailed 93 people in the school district, including board members and Helen Tobia, the district’s director of special education. The email included a holiday greeting and notice “that my law office will again be accepting both student and staff of matters with the initial consultation at no charge.”
The email also included a note that Inzelbuch, 48, would assess each case individually to make certain there is no conflict of interest.
Lakewood has about 5,600 public school students and more than 22,000 private students — all of whom are entitled to taxpayer-funded special education and transportation.
Inzelbuch has also taken on two cases involving two boys, one from Clifton Avenue Elementary School and the other from Lakewood Middle School. Inzelbuch said he agreed to take the cases with no charge to the parents. When he wins, Inzelbuch said, the district will have to pay his fee.
“Mr. Inzelbuch served the board zealously and competently,” said Steven Secare, the Toms River-based attorney representing Inzelbuch.
The state’s Rules of Professional Conduct for attorneys offer a six-month period after termination before an attorney can accept a case as long as it does not adversely affect the former employer, Secare said in court papers.
“Had Mr. Inzelbuch acquired specific knowledge that would be materially adverse to the (board), a conflict would exist. However, merely acquiring skill, experience and general knowledge” is not enough to disqualify him from taking cases after six months, Secare said.
Lakewood legal bills
When he worked for the Lakewood district, Inzelbuch received a salary of $122,655 plus health benefits as special-education coordinator, according to his contract. Additionally, Inzelbuch earned more than $2 million in legal fees since the beginning of 2008 until the beginning of 2012, payment records show. On some days, Inzelbuch’s legal fees were more than $2,000. Inzelbuch also farmed out some of the legal work to other attorneys for special programs, board President Carl Fink said.
Bills from the attorney replacing Inzelbuch, Stephen J. Edelstein and his law firm, totaled $961,394 for one year. Edelstein said that the contracts that had been in place under Inzelbuch had to be rewritten to eliminate potential problems for the district.
The case that started the conflict-of-interest lawsuit involved two autistic twins from Lakewood who attended the Lakewood Early Childhood Center.
After Inzelbuch’s departure, the school’s special-education plan proposed that the twins continue their education inside the district. The parents disagreed and hired Inzelbuch. The case was heard and settled at Office of Administrative Law on April 8. The settlement included tuition of $55,000 per child at the special-education YALE school in Cherry Hill. The district also will pay to transport the children. The judge declined to hear the conflict case, but settled the special-education portion of the case, saying the children’s needs were paramount.
“The district determined that this is a reasonable placement for these children, and of course we are bound to act in the best interest of the children,” Edelstein said. “We have agreed to pay for the balance of this year and the next two years. We did not agree to give the children ‘compensatory education,’ nor did we agree to pay an additional $30,000 in fees and costs which were sought. Also, we did not pay for the majority of the independent evaluations secured by the parents.
“They wanted $60,000, and we paid $28,000,” Edelstein said Friday. “We did not agree to pay for additional independent evaluations and private placement.”
Inzelbuch’s fees and court costs were $28,000, paid by the district.
Marc G. Mucciolo, an attorney with Edelstein’s law firm, represented the district before the Office of Administrative Law judge. The firm’s fees for the one case was $55,220, he said.
“Not only is this reasonable given the enormous amount of work, but it is reasonable given the amount of money at stake in these many actual and potential cases,” Edelstein said.