Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Rockaway Fire Department confidentially pays $100,000 to settle female lieutenant's gender harassment lawsuit.

On July 22, 2015, the Township of Rockaway (Morris County), along with Hibernia Fire Company 1 and its fire chief and deputy chief agreed to pay $100,000 to a female fire lieutenant who claimed that the fire department's upper management created a hostile work environment and harassed her because of her gender.

In her suit, Sara Matthews claimed that the fire company did not promptly address her complaint that Thomas Farrell was elected to Rescue Captain in July 2011 despite having not met minimum attendance requirements.  She claimed that in response to her complaint, Fire Chief Ryan Edwish "conducted a discriminatory and bad faith investigation, which intentionally delayed" the matter in order to give Farrell enough time to meet the requirements.  She also claimed that Deputy Chief Adam Power referred to somebody as a "c**t."  (The sentence in the complaint states: "[Matthews] learned that Defendant {Adam] Power left Ellen Black, an assistant chief of Company No. 3, a voicemail wherein he referred to her as a "c**t'."  It is difficult to determine whether Power's alleged use of the the derogatory term was directed toward Matthews or Black.)  Matthews also claimed she was wrongly removed from her position as Lieutenant after suffering an on duty accident.

Of the $100,000, $50,000 went to Matthews and $50,000 went to her lawyer. The fact that Rockaway Township was involved in the settlement is evidenced by its resolution that authorized the settlement agreement.

The case is captioned Matthews v. Township of Rockaway et al, Morris County Superior Court Docket No. MRS-L-91-13 and Matthews's attorney was Kevin Barber of Morristown.  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 Matthews' allegations have been proven or disproven in court. The settlement agreement resolution expressly states that the $100,000 payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by Rockaway or any of its officials. All that is known for sure is that Rockaway or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Matthews $100,000 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.