Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Margate pays $125,000 to woman settle sexual harassment suit

On October 6, 2009, the City of Margate (Atlantic County), its insurer and former Margate Police Sergeant William J. Bowen agreed to pay a total of $125,000 to a Mays Landing woman who claimed that Sergeant Bowen sexually harassed her. Of the $125,000, $115,000 was paid by Margate and its insurers and $10,000 was paid by Bowen.

In her complaint, Plaintiff Jennifer M. Vandegrift claimed that Bowen, during a June 7, 2005 traffic stop, asked her for her phone number, "asked her out on a date and asked her to remove and give him her undergarments." Vandegrift, who admits having been visibly intoxicated at the time, claims that she "felt coerced" to give Bowen her telephone number "but evaded his request for her undergarments saying that she wasn't wearing any." After Bowen let her go, she was later arrested by Ocean City police for driving while intoxicated.

Vandegrift further claims that a year later, she received a telephone call from a person who identified himself as "Joe" who told her that he had gotten her telephone number that evening. She reportedly suspected that Bowen was "Joe" because he was the only person she had given her number to that evening. The complaint alleges that "Bowen was later identified as the caller" and that he made raw and graphic sexual comments to her.

Vandegrift claims that the encounters caused her to seek "treatment for emotional problems" and that after she complained to the Cape May County Prosecutor's office, "administrative charges" were filed against Bowen. The charges reportedly resulted in a settlement agreement under which Bowen resigned and agreed not to seek reinstatement with the Margate Police Department.

The matter is captioned Vandegrift v.Bowen, et al, Civil No. 1:07-cv-02623. The lawsuit and settlement agreement are on-line here. Vandegrift was represented by Thomas M. Barron of Moorestown.

None of Vandegrift's allegations have been proven or disproven in court. The settlement agreement expressly states that the $125,000 payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by Margate, Bowen or any of its officials. All that is known for sure is that defendants and their insurers, for whatever reason, decided that they would rather pay the Vandegrift $125,000 than take the matter to trial. Perhaps the defendants' 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 the defendants 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.