Friday, June 24, 2011

Elizabeth Board pays $500,000 to settle employee discrimination suit

On May 9, 2011, the Elizabeth Board of Education (Union County) agreed to pay $500,000 to an electrician who sued the Board and Superintendent Pablo Munoz for allegedly firing him because of his age, Italian ancestry, perceived disability or because he filed a workers compensation claim.

In his suit, Frank LaFace, who was 60 when the lawsuit was filed, said that he was hired by the Board in 1983 and was placed on administrative leave on June 30, 2006 while he was seeking a workers compensation claim. He claims that he was then discharged even though he had seniority and "an excellent work history."

The Board agreed to pay the $500,000 as follows:

a) an initial check of $240,000, $110,000 of which is for LaFace's attorney's fees, $65,000 for his pain and suffering and $65,000 for economic damages.

b) one year later, another check for $130,000, $65,000 for LaFace's pain and suffering and $65,000 for economic damages.

c) one year after that, another $130,000 check, similar split between pain & suffering and economic damages.

The case is captioned LaFace v. Elizabeth Board of Education, Docket No. UNN-L-3662-07 and LaFace's attorney was Phillip B. Linder of Edison. Case documents are on-line here.

The settlement agreement contains a confidentiality clause, which prevents the parties to the suit from publicly disclosing the settlement terms. Fortunately, however, these confidentiality clauses do not trump the public's right to obtain copies of settlement agreements that arise out of lawsuits in which a government agency or official is a defendant.

None of LaFace's allegations have been proven or disproven in court. The settlement agreement resolution expressly states that the $500,000 payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by the school board or any of its officials. All that is known for sure is that the school board or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay LaFace $500,000 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.