Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Somerset County Vo-Tech Board of Education confidentially paid out $75,000 to settle school social worker's whistleblower lawsuit.

On April 25, 2015, the Somerset County Vocational Technical Board of Education quietly agreed to pay $75,000 to a social worker who claimed that school officials diverted State grant money from a program that she ran and then fired her when the program failed for lack of resources and because of the officials' interference.

In her suit, Carolyn Brink said that she headed up the "School-Based Youth Services Program" in the Vo-Tech School.  The program, which is mostly funded by a grant from the New Jersey Department of Children and Families (NJDCF), is designed to meet the emotional, behavioral, and family well-being of students.  Brink claimed that Superintendent Chrys Harttraft and Vo-Tech school principal Diane Ziegler intentionally underutilized the program and diverted grant money to purposes that were not authorized or permitted by the NJDCF.  She said that Harttraft's and Ziegler's actions caused a marked reduction in student use of the Program which was later used as a justification for eliminating both the Program and Brink's position.

She said that Harttraft and Ziegler retaliated against her for having reported them to the NJDCF for the alleged grant money diversion which Brink said she "reasonably believed to be in violation of law, rule and regulation and/or to be fraudulent and/or criminal."  Brink alleged that Director of Pupil Services Joseph Petrosino told her that she should "not be so vocal and communicative with NJDCF about her concerns" and warned her "not to challenge Defendant Ziegler on her decisions" because Harttraft and Ziegler believed that Brink was "tattle-telling" on the district to the NJDCF.

When it was filed, the lawsuit was reported by the Star Ledger

The case is captioned Brink v. Somerset County Vo-Tech Board of Education, Superior Case Docket No. SOM-L-527-13 and Brink's attorney was George W. Fisher of Princeton.  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 the Brink'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 Somerset County Vo-Tech or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Brink $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.