Friday, June 30, 2017

Bridgeton confidentially paid $550,000 to settle sexual harassment claim.

On March 30, 2017, the City of Bridgeton (Cumberland County) quietly agreed to pay $550,000 to settle a sexual harassment and retaliation lawsuit filed by five female employees of the City.

In their complaint, City employees Deena Bertolini, Veronica Cheeseman, Carolyn Dover, Deanne Laing, and Kelly Queen claimed that Officer Angel Santiago subjected them to "a plethora of unwanted sexual harassment" including scratching the tops of their breasts, showing them photos of his penis which he called "Captain Hook" and "acting like he was fixing something underneath their desks and subsequently pushing his penis on them after making them stand up out of their chairs."

The women claimed that when they reported Angel Santiago's conduct to his superiors, his twin brother Luis Santiago "undertook a campaign of retaliation" against them involving conduct such as making false reports against them, giving them dirty looks and refusing to let male officers cover for the women's calls.

A June 10, 2015 South Jersey Times article, which covered the filing of the women's lawsuit, quoted the women's lawyer as saying that Angel Santiago was suspended without pay in October 2013 as a result of the Cumberland County Prosecutor's investigation into the matter.  According to the Times article, the lawyer said that the City worked out a settlement with Angel Santiago before a disciplinary hearing took place.  In a separate matter, Angel Santiago was one of six officers named in a excessive force lawsuit that resulted in an April 4, 2015 settlement of $500,000.

Luis Santiago was suspended with pay on November 11, 2016 and then was suspended without pay on December 14, 2016.  The suspension came shortly after Luis was charged with sexual contact and harassment, according to a November 10, 2016 article in the Daily Journal.   It is presently unknown whether those charges have been resolved or whether the suspension has been lifted.

According to the June 10, 2015 Times article, "Both Santiago men were placed on administrative duty in 2012 after Angel Santiago was charged with simple assault for his involvement in a domestic violence incident and Luis Santiago had a harassment charge filed against him."  The article went onto state that Luis Santiago was on active duty at the time the article was written.

The case is captioned Bertolini, et al v. City of Bridgeton, et al, Cumberland County Superior Court Docket No. CUM-L-361-15 and the plaintiffs' attorney was Arthur J. Murray of Atlantic City.  It and the settlement are on-line here.

The release contains a confidentiality clause, which prevents the parties to the suit from "releas[ing] information regarding this incident and/or lawsuit and/or settlement including the nature and amount of settlement."  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 women'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 Bridgeton or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay the women $550,000 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.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Burlington Institute of Technology confidentially paid $65,000 to student who claimed that school officials did not remedy racial harassment.

On December 9, 2016, the Burlington County Institute of Technology (BCIT) quietly paid $65,000 to settle a former African-American student's lawsuit which claimed that he was repeatedly racially harassed by other students and that school officials took no corrective action.

In his suit, Venice Samuel, III of Willingboro, who was a minor at the time the suit was filed but an adult at the time it was settled, claimed that he suffered several incidents of racial harassment during his junior and senior years at the BCIT's Medford Campus.  Samuel claimed that he was repeatedly called a n****r during October 2012 by a student identified in the lawsuit only as "D.D."  He said that Assistant Principal Michael Parker failed to take any action after receiving Samuel's complaints.

Similarly, Samuel claimed that Principal Frank Ranelli and Assistant Principals Heidi Bouchard and Fred Aiken failed to take meaningful action after D.D. and four other students wore T-shirts with Confederate flags on them in November 2012 and a white student identified only as "A.P." spit a piece of gum at him in December 2012. Samuel and his mother claimed that when they reported the harassment to Superintendent Donald Lucas, Lucas also took no action and instead recommended that Samuel attend anger management classes.

Samuel claimed that the harassment continued through his senior year during which students would make "racist jokes in which African-Americans were the punchline" and which referred to African-Americans liking chicken and Kool-Aid.  Again, school officials allegedly took no meaningful action in response to Samuel's complaints.

The case is captioned V.S. v. Burlington Township Institute of Technology, et al, New Jersey Superior Court Docket No. BUR-L-2319-14 and Samuel's attorney was Kevin M. Costello of Mount Laurel.  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 Samuel'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 BCIT or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Samuel $65,000 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.