Sunday, June 19, 2016

Lakewood school board confidentially pays $174,000 to settle former employees' "whistleblower" and wrongful termination lawsuit.

On April 13, 2016, the Lakewood Board of Education (Ocean County) quietly paid $174,000 to settle a lawsuit jointly filed by its former Business Administrator and Assistant Board Secretary who claimed that they were fired for objecting to discriminatory practices against the school district's African-American and Hispanic families and for objecting to paying improperly documented vendors.  They also claimed that the school board's lawyer advised them to ignore legitimate Open Public Records Act (OPRA) requests.

In their suit, former Business Administrator Arlene Biesiada and Assistant Board Secretary Lisa Miller said that school officials "inexplicably" told parents of students who attended the After-School Tutoring Program that they needed to make weekly payments for the program even though federal Title I funds covered the program's costs.  Miller said that she complained to school officials that the program's clients "were near or at poverty level and/or primarily working poor, with the overwhelming majority of them being Hispanic and/or African American."  Miller claimed that Board members had "an obvious bias and discriminatory view toward the African American and Latino population in the District," and claimed that one unnamed Board Member stated that "it did not matter how much money was 'pumped' into the public schools since it was all Latino and African American students anyhow and they would never amount to anything anyway."

The pair also alleged that Board members and other officials chastised them for insisting that certain vendors have their documentation in order before being paid.  They allege that Board of Education President Carl Fink and Board members Yechezkel "Chesky" Seitler and Jonathan Silver approached Biesiada in November 2012 and told her to give a vendor called Tree of Knowledge "an advance of $200,000 so that [the vendor] could make their payroll."  Biesiada said that after reviewing Tree of Knowledge's September and October 2012 bills, she found that the "bills were incorrect and improper" and that Tree of Knowledge was "billing the District in excess of $10,000.00 over and above what should have been billed."

Another vendor that the pair claimed received special attention from Board members was Catapult Learning Center. According to the lawsuit, Seitler "was actively and directly negotiating a contract with Catapult" and that Fink and Seitler held "many meetings [with] Catapult representatives" from which Biesiada and Miller were excluded.  When they raised concerns, Biesiada and Miller claimed that they were told by Neva Musella, the school district's grant secretary, "to 'fix' the bills on behalf of [Catapult and Tree of Knowledge]." 

The pair also claimed that Supervisor of Purchase Helen Tobia requested them to "put through Purchase Orders for individual ink jet printers for certain non-public schools connected to the District."  Such a purchase, the lawsuit claimed, would have violated the terms of New Jersey's Non-Public Technology Grant unless it was approved by the New Jersey Department of Education.

Also named in the lawsuit were Superintendent Laura A. Winters and Board member Joel Schwartz.  According to the school district's website, Fink, Seitler, Silver and Schwartz no longer serve on the Board of Education. 

The case is captioned Biesiada and Miller v. Lakewood Board of Education, et al, New Jersey Superior Court Docket No. OCN-L-1041-14 and Biesiada and Miller's attorney was Patrick J. Whalen of Trenton.  Case documents are on-line here.  Of the $174,000, Miller received $57,857.21, Biesiada received $43,457.21 and the remaining $72,685.58 went to Whalen. 

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.

The settlement agreement states that it has no effect on another lawsuit, bearing Docket No. MON-L-4025-14, that Biesiada and Miller filed against attorney Michael I. Inzelbuch.  The pair refers to this lawsuit as a "Legal Malpractice action against their former attorney, Michael Inzelbuch, Esquire (who also happened to be the former Lakewood Board attorney), in relation to this action."  According to court records, the malpractice action was settled on April 15, 2016 and Whalen was Biesiada's and Miller's attorney.

None of Biesiada's and Miller'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 the Lakewood school district or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Biesiada and Miller $174,000 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.