Monday, September 19, 2016

Cape May City to pay $369,000 to settle former gay cop's discrimination lawsuit.

On September 19, 2016, the insurer for the City of Cape May (Cape May County) produced a draft agreement that calls for $369,000 to be paid to an openly gay former police officer who claimed that department officials unfairly used the Internal Affairs process to discriminate against him.  He also claimed that he was "subjected the most vile anti-gay slurs and other discriminatory conduct by members of the public" and that the City "did not take the appropriate remedial action."

In his lawsuit, Steven Pascal, who describes himself as "an openly gay male" alleged that members of the public hurled anti-gay slurs at him from his hiring in 2002 until he was suspended without pay in 2012.  Specifically, he claimed a juvenile with the initials J.C.--pretending to be Pascal--called Pascal's friends and said that he would like to engage in a sexual act with them.  Pascal said that when he confronted the juvenile about the calls, the juvenile's parents complained to the department which resulted in Pascal being suspended for two days and required to undergo therapy.

Pascal claimed that he complained to then Chief of Police Diane Sorentino who declined to take any action.  This, Pascal claimed, emboldened other members of the public to harass him.  He claimed that two City residents called him various homophobic slurs and said that they would "snap his neck in a dark alley."  This alleged harassment and threat were allegedly witnessed by six Class II Officers that Pascal supervised.

In his complaint, Pascal named Captain Robert Sheehan, Jr., (who for a short period was provisionally appointed as the police chief) as a defendant because of "his direct participant in the acts of harassment, discrimination, and retaliation."  But, allegations in the complaint limit Sheehan's involvement to improperly using the Internal Affairs system against him and requiring him to go to sham fitness for duty examinations.  Ultimately, a hearing officer found that Pascal was unfit for duty which caused his termination on August 16, 2013.

The case is captioned Pascal v. Cape May City, Superior Court Docket No. CPM-L-444-13 and Pascal's attorney was Sebastian B. Ionno of Pitman.  Case documents are on-line here: Civil lawsuit Draft Settlement Agreement and a June 4, 2015 ruling by Judge J. Christopher Gibson that quashed Pascal's subpoena that sought records of the Cape May County Prosecutor's office regarding its alleged investigation of "allegations of sexual harassment and/or inappropriate sexual conduct by Sheehan towards a female employee."  Gibson found that this information, if in existence, "would be relevant as to conduct on Defendant Sheehan's part that violated Cape May City's anti-discrimination policy."  But, Gibson quashed the subpoena because it was not specific enough.

According to the settlement, the City of Cape May paid $50,000 of the total with the remainder apparently being paid by the Atlantic County Joint Insurance Fund, the City's insurer.  Of the total amount paid, Pascal received $193,000 and his lawyer received the remainder.

None of the Pascal'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 Cape May or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Pascal $369,000 than take the matter to trial. Perhaps the 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.

Note: The court marked the case as having settled.  While it is possible that a dispute will arise prior to the settlement agreement being signed by the City, this rarely happens because the settlement has been negotiated and agreed to by all the parties.  Readers who wish to be absolutely sure that this case settled according to the terms stated above should submit an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request for the final, signed settlement agreement.