Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Greenwich pays $123,000 to settle minor's sexual assault claim against fire chief

On October 8, 2012, the Township of Greenwich (Cumberland County) and the Greenwich Township Fire Department agreed to pay $123,000 to a local couple and daughter who claimed that the daughter was sexually assaulted and otherwise mistreated by officials of the local volunteer fire department and that neither the fire department nor the Township took corrective action.

In their two lawsuits, John and Patricia Newton, parents of Jordan Newton, said that in September 2007, when Jordan was nearly sixteen years old, Fire Chief Wade MacFarland asked them whether Jordan would be interested in becoming a volunteer firefighter.  According to the lawsuit, MacFarland said that Jordan was needed to complete and file various fire reports with the State and that he and other officials at the department would be her guardians.  Jordan, who had been home schooled and "had not been exposed . . . to many social settings involving a number of adults," reported to the department and started completing the reports under MacFarland's direction. Jordan claimed that she began meeting with MacFarland on a number of occasions when she and MacFarland were the only ones present.

After her seventeenth birthday, Jordan became certified as an EMT and started responding to fire calls under the command of EMS Unit Captain Laurie Larue MacFarland, who was then Wade MacFarland's wife. According to the lawsuits, at about the same time, Wade MacFarland called Jordan to the firehouse and subjected her to "flirting and increased attention . . . including, among other things, back rubs being administered . . . when others were not present."  Chief MacFarland, who was in his early to mid thirties, allegedly also promised Jordan that he would marry her and "she would be groomed by him to become the first and youngest female fire chief in the State of New Jersey."  Wade MacFarland allegedly "soon engaged himself in a sexual relationship with [Jordan] while she was a minor and while he served in a direct supervisory capacity to her as the Chief of the Defendant Greenwich Fire Department."

Jordan's parents learned about the alleged relationship in November 2010 and immediately demanded that the fire department investigate.  Fire Captain Matthew Elwell, who knew about the alleged relationship, reportly encouraged other fire officers to "look the other way."  After not getting anywhere with the fire department, Jordan's parents sought help from the Greenwich Township Committee but were allegedly "rebuffed in their request."

Also named in the suits were Mayor Theodore Keifer; William Reinhart, who served on the Township Committee as well as president of the fire department; Charles Reinhart and Misty Reinhart who, respectively, served as deputy chief and as an active member in the fire department.

The settled cases are captioned Newton v. Greenwich Township, Federal Case No. 1:12-cv-00238 and Newton v. MacFarland, Federal Case No. 1:12-cv-00237.  In addition to the $123,000 pay out, the settlement agreement also requires the fire department to amend its bylaws to require a) that a junior firefighter must be at least 18 years old and b) prevent departmental disciplinary matters from being decided by relatives of the accused.  Further, the agreement requires the department to adopt a sexual harassment policy and confirms that both Wade MacFarland and Charles Reinhart, by unanimous votes, were dismissed from the fire department on June 30, 2011.  Finally, the settlement agreement prevents MacFarland from ever holding a position with the Township or the fire department and prevents Reinhart from holding such a position unless "the full record of this matter" as well as "the findings of Hearing Officer, J. Fred Coldren, in the matter of City of Bridgeton v. Charles Reinhart" are taken into consideration.

A third lawsuit, filed by Jordan Newton against Charles Reinhart and bearing Superior Court Docket No. CUM-L-1060-11, is not being dismissed as part of the settlement.  According to a December 1, 2011 article in the News of Cumberland County, this lawsuit alleged that Charles Reinhart “forced [Jordan], against her will, to engage in sexual intercourse with him and forced her to perform fellatio upon him.” In her suit, Jordan claimed that this incident took place at Reinhart's home where Jordan “had been house sitting and dog sitting for Defendant Charles Reinhart and his wife when they would take trips.”   According to the article, Reinhart encouraged Jordan to take a nap in the master bedroom and then sexually assaulted her approximately one hour after she fell asleep fully clothed.  She further alleged that Reinhart later asked her to meet him at the parking lot of the Bridgeton Hospital but that Reinhart attempted to sexually assault her again after she entered his vehicle.

Newton's attorney was John P. Morris of Bridgeton.  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 Newton family's allegations have been proven or disproven in court. The settlement agreement resolution expressly states that the $123,000 payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by Greenwich or any of its officials. All that is known for sure is that Greenwich or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay the Newton family $123,000 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.