Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Lawnside pays $350,000 to settle female cop's harassment suit

In October 2009, Carmen Chapman, a police officer for Lawnside Borough (Camden County), accepted $350,000 in settlement of her lawsuit against the Borough and her supervisors within the Borough's police department.

In her lawsuit, filed on April 4, 2008, Chapman, who was Lawnside's first female police officer when appointed in 2002, alleged that Public Safety Director John Cunningham and Sergeant Lloyd Lewis (now a lieutenant) engaged in a pattern of misconduct against her.

Specifically, Chapman alleges that Lewis, who was her supervisor, continually asked her to socialize with him outside of work hours and repeatedly suggested that they get "together for drinks." After her swearing-in ceremony, while other officers shook her hand, Chapman alleges that Lewis "grabbed and hugged" her. Chapman alleges that she always rebuffed Lewis' advances, but was nonetheless "verbally reprimanded for inappropriate contact with Lewis by then Public Safety Director George D. Pugh."

She further alleges that Lewis harassed her by instructing officers of the Barrington Police Department not to provide back up to her and her partner should they call for backup, failing to supply her with necessary equipment and for applying the department's bereavement leave policy to her differently than to other, male officers.

As to Cunningham, Chapman alleges that shortly after taking his position in May 2006, he started subjecting her and her activities to a level of scrutiny different than that applied to male police officers. She also alleges that while she was on medical leave after having surgery on her right knee due to a work injury, Cunningham determined that she was unfit for duty, stopped her salary from being paid and had a disciplinary notice served upon her at her home.

The case is captioned Chapman v. Borough of Lawnside, Case No. 1:08-cv-01695-NLH-JS . Chapman's lawyer was Jacqueline M. Vigilante of Mullica Hill. The lawsuit and settlement agreement are on-line here.

The settlement agreement contains a provision requiring both Chapman and the Borough from disclosing the terms of the settlement. Fortunately, however, such "confidentiality clauses" do not trump the public's right to know under the Open Public Records Act.

The settlement agreement also requires Chapman to resign on December 31, 2009 if she does not receive employment with another agency by then.

None of Chapman's allegations have been proven or disproven in court. The settlement agreement expressly states that the $350,000 payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by the Township or any of its officers. All that is known for sure is that Lawnside, and perhaps its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that they would rather pay Chapman and her lawyer $350,000 than take the matter to trial. Perhaps Lawnside's decision to settle was done to save further legal expense and the costs of trying what were in fact exaggerated or meritless claims. Or, perhaps the claims were true and Lawnside wanted to avoid being embarrassed at trial. This is the problem when cases settle before trial--it is impossible to know the truth of what really happened.