Thursday, June 23, 2016

Fairfield pays $75,000 to settle former mayor's discrimination and malicious prosecution lawsuit.

On March 17, 2016, Fairfield Township (Cumberland County) paid a former mayor $75,000 to settle his lawsuit that accused another former mayor and others of calling him "boy" and referring to other members of the Township Committee as "monkeys."

In his lawsuit,former Mayor Michael Sharp accused Joanne Servais's late husband Richard and her son Joseph, along with local resident and frequent meeting attendee Russell Pierce, of violating the Township's civil rights policy by referring to Sharp as "boy" in mid-2013.  Sharp also alleges that Pierce referred to current Mayor Benjamin Byrd and his running mate, Deputy Mayor Troy L. Pitts, Sr., as "monkeys."  Sharp, Byrd, Pitts and Defendant Michael Morton are African-American while the rest of the defendants are Caucasian. He alleged that the comments "served to humiliate and degrade" him, Byrd and Pitts.

Separately, Sharp alleged that Joanne Servais maliciously prosecuted him by filing a harassment complaint against him that lacked probable cause.  He claimed that the complaint was dismissed on June 2, 2014 by the Millville Municipal Court.  Sharp alleged that Joann Servais, after the court dismissed her complaint, "began to make threats against witnesses who were present to testify" on Sharp's behalf and accused the judge of being "related in some fashion to Ms. Servais' political enemies thereby indicating that the Court was biased against her."

Sharp's lawsuit also took issue with a November 20, 2013 report by Moorestown attorney Kathleen McGill Gaskill that determined that the "boy" and "monkey" comments were insufficient to support a claim of racial harassment under the Township's civil rights policy. In his suit, Sharp calls Gaskill's report "wholly contrived," "founded upon specious analysis" and intended to exculpate Defendants.

Also named in the suit were Don Taylor and Viola Thomas-Hughes.

The case is captioned Sharp v. Township of Fairfield, et al, Cumberland County Docket No. CUM-L-162-15 and Sharp's attorney was John C. Eastlack of Cherry Hill. Case documents are on-line here.

None of Sharp's allegations have been proven or disproven in court. Settlement agreements typically state that payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by any of the defendants.  All that is known for sure is that Fairfield or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Sharp $75,000 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.