On December 10, 2013, the Township of Medford (Burlington County) agreed to pay $83,000 to a former construction official who sued the Township for wrongful termination and for violating his rights under the Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA).
In his suit, Richard Uschmann, a Township employee since 2000 and Medford Construction Code Official since 2007, claimed that he was laid off in 2009 for what the Township claimed to be "budgetary" reasons based on the Township entering into a shared services agreement with Lumberton Township. Uschmann claimed that the Township's clamed reason for the layoff was inconsistent with a previous letter written to him by Township Manager Michael Ackey that, in addition to economic reasons, alleged "performance based reasons amounting to a lack of professionalism." Uschmann claimed that he was tenured as a Building Sub-code Official, a position he also held, which disallowed the Township from terminating his employment absent good cause and a fair and impartial hearing. He claimed to have never received such a hearing and that the Township never actually entered into the shared services agreement with Lumberton. Rather, Uschmann argued, Medford entered into a shared services agreement with Tabernacle Township for the Building Sub-code position.
Despite the Township's alleged technical and procedural violations, Uschmann claimed that the real motivation behind his termination was Ackey's desire to retaliate against him for doing his job in a way that might have embarrassed Ackey. He said that he complained on April 9, 2009 that "letters were being sent out by Medford with his signature on them that he had not actually sign" and that he issued a "Notice of Violation and Order to Terminate" to Ulrich Builders who was performing construction work on the Township Clerk's Office. These actions, according to Uschmann, caused him to receive a layoff notice "a few days later."
Also, he claimed that when went out on July 9, 2009 to the site of a new firehouse construction, he issued a "Stop Construction Order" after learning that no permits had yet been issued for the project despite the fact that construction "was well underway." He said that at the time of his visit, Fire Marshall Thomas Thorn, who also was the Acting Construction Official, appeared to be the project manager. The same afternoon, Uschmann claimed that he told Ackey about the lack of permits and asked him "why the project had gone this far without the required working permits." Ackey allegedly claimed ignorance of the permit problem and later produced Steve Addezio, the Township's Director of Public Safety, who allegedly "immediately owned up to the mistake, stating that he had 'screwed up' and that it was all his 'fault.'" Despite this admission, Uschmann alleged, he was laid off the following day. He claimed to have been "escorted out of the building the same day, almost immediately, with only thirty minutes or so to collect his personal belongings."
Further, Uschmann claimed that after his termination, Thorn filed for the permits and a Certificate of Occupancy for the firehouse but had "misrepresented that he [Thorn] was the one who had done the electrical work on the project, which was done, upon information and belief, in order to get around the rules requiring the obtaining of inspection permits at the outset."
Finally, Uschmann claimed that Ackey, who had a "relationship" with Hotsons Realty, LLC and/or its principals, which allegedly owned the land on which the firehouse was located, was worried about public embarrassment that would result if "the public should find out about any improprieties relating to this project because, upon information and belief, the project is at least one million dollars over budget and any further improprieties or 'screw ups' would reflect badly on Ackey, Thorn and others." This, according to Uschmann, was a determinative and motivating factor for Ackey's decision to terminate his employment.
The case is captioned Uschmann v. Township of Medford, Burlington County Superior Court Docket No. BUR-L-3919-10 and Uschmann's attorney was Anthony Valenti of Mount Laurel. 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 or even the existence of the settlement agreement. 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 Uschmann's allegations have been proven or disproven in court. The settlement agreement resolution expressly states that the $83,000 payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by Medford or any of its officials. All that is known for sure is that Medford or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Uschmann $83,000 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.