Saturday, October 22, 2016

Paterson agrees to pay $150,000 to resolve DPW head's hostile work environment lawsuit.

On September 13, 2016, the Paterson City Council (Passaic County) agreed to pay $150,000 to the present Director of the City's Department of Public Works (DPW) who claimed that he suffered retaliation because he remained a supporter of Paterson Mayor Jose "Joey" Torres from 2010 to 2014 when Jeffrey Jones served as mayor.

In his lawsuit, Manuel Ojeda, who has worked for the City's DPW since 1988, said that despite his "exemplary record" Jones, Business Administrator Charles Thomas and then DPW Director Christopher Coke retaliated against him.  Ojeda claimed that the defendants demoted him to Sanitation Inspector, tried to reduce his pay by $40,000 and "doubled the size of his street cleaning route and otherwise increased his workload without a corresponding increase in pay."

He also claimed that Coke ridiculed him in front of the other DPW employees.  Coke allegedly told Ojeda that "You and Joey [Mayor Torres] did a fine job f***ing this department up."  Ojeda said that a fellow employee who brought baseless charges against him was rewarded by being allowed to have his girlfriend ride around with him during work in a City vehicle.

According to news reports, the City Council has previously rejected higher settlement offers, the most recent being a $175,000 offer which was rejected in June 2016.

The case is captioned Ojeda v. City of Paterson, et al, Federal Case No. 13-cv-0628 and Ojeda's attorney was Susan A. Champion of Wayne. Case documents are on-line here.  According to the City's settlement resolution, no payment will be made to Ojeda until the settlement is approved by the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs.

None of lawsuit'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 Paterson or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Ojeda $150,000 than take the matter to trial. Perhaps the defendants' decision 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 resolve before trial--it is impossible to know the truth of what really happened.