Monday, November 16, 2015

Pemberton secretly pays $150,000 to settle pregnant police officer's discrimination lawsuit.

On October 28, 2015, the Township of Pemberton (Burlington County) agreed to pay $150,000 to a police officer who claimed that she was discriminated against because of her pregnancy.

In her suit, Shannon Sawyer claimed that after she presented her supervisors with a doctor's note confirming her pregnancy, she was relieved of her patrol duty and put on administrative work.  According to the suit, Township Business Administrator Dennis Gonzalez held that Sawyer's request for modified duty was unacceptable and that she would have to either work her normal patrol shift or take sick or vacation time.  Sawyer said that she opted to work in her full capacity as a patrol officer but Gonzalez changed his mind forced her to "take sick leave until further notice."

Through her union, Sawyer filed a grievance that resulted in a "Step Three" grievance hearing before the Township Council.  Despite the Township Council voting 5-0 to return Sawyer to her position as a police officer where she could work on administrative tasks and to reimburse her for her sick time, Gonzalez refused to abide by the Council's decision.  According to Sawyer, her family leave and sick time would have run out about six weeks prior to her baby's expected delivery date.

As part of the settlement, the Township agreed to credit Sawyer for 77 sick days and 13 vacation days.  The agreement also specifically reserves he rights under another lawsuit captioned Stewart, et al. v. Pemberton Township. et al., Federal Action No. 14-6810.

The case is captioned Sawyer v. Township of Pemberton et al, Burlington County Superior Court Docket No. BUR-L-743-15 and Sawyer's attorney was Jeffery D. Catrambone of Clifton.  Case documents are on-line here and 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 Sawyers' allegations have been proven or disproven in court. The settlement agreement resolution expressly states that the $150,000 payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by Pemberton or any of its officials. All that is known for sure is that Pemberton or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Sawyer $150,000 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.